I always liked the 1992 Disney movie “Newsies”. It was a good way to explain strikes and unions to my children and I dug the idea that anti-union Walt Disney was turning summersaults in his grave knowing his studio was making a pro-strike film. “Newsies” was loosely based on the 1899 strike of “newsies,” the children and very young teenagers who would hawk the papers in New York City. Its “Seize the Day” strike song was stirring even though the politics were more Three Musketeers than Eugene Debs.
This month (“and this month only”) a video of Disney’s Broadway play “Newsies” came to select movie theaters The singing was spectacular and the dancing was terrific, young men leaping over themselves and doing impossible twirls, but the stage adaptation was even more “disney-fied” than the original movie, meaning it included more movie clichés and stories of class collaboration.
The actual strike of 1899 is pretty interesting. Why talk about a hundred year old strike now? There’s lessons for today. These workers didn’t go through endless legal hurdles to get a government sponsored election. They didn’t beg politicians to solve their problems. They took direct action and they won.
First, some things about the movie and play. (Beware, there are lots of plot spoilers.)
The 1992 movie introduced us to the mix of homeless and poor children who sell the newspapers. They put up money up front and cannot return any unsold. They’re angered when to the two newspaper titans, Pulitzer and Hearst, raise the cost of the paper from 50 cent per hundred to 60 cent per hundred. That was a lot of money when it costs 5 cents per night to sleep two in a bed in a flop house. The boys start talking a leader emerges, Jack Kelly, and they refuse to buy the papers. They destroy wagon loads of newspapers. Police start to beat them up and put some in a prison-like “shelter” for children call the “Refuge”. The strike looks doomed, but at the last moment “Brooklyn” shows up, hundreds of tough newsies from the city of Brooklyn who join the fighting and the thugs and scabs retreat.
Of course there’s a romantic connection. It’s between the newsie leader and a sister of a Jewish newsie, Sarah. One rival paper “The Sun” prints a story about the strike, but Pulitzer conspires with all the newspaper owners for a news blackout of the strike. The reporter for “The Sun” is reassigned overseas, but before he goes he convinces the newsies to print their own newspaper. Sarah agrees to be the writer, but they need to get the paper printed. This they do by secretly using an old printing press in Pulitzer’s own building. It’s all a grand success, other child workers go on strike and a huge crowd surrounds the Pulitzer building. With the voices of the workers in the background Jack Kelly convinces Joseph Pulitizer that it makes good business sense to lower the price of the paper. Finally who shows up but Governor Teddy Roosevelt who frees the boys from the Refuge and has the crook running it arrested.
The original movie was a flop and made just a couple of million for Disney. For the play they hired the multi-talented actor/playwright Harvey Fierstein. His changes evidently made “Newsies” a Broadway hit, but the plot is also more feel-good Disney. The romantic interest and the reporter are combined into one and she turns out to be Joseph Pulitizer’s own daughter. Two of the men work the printing press for the strikers also turn out to be relatives of other newspaper owners. Sympathy from the offspring of the greedy capitalist is one of the oldest Hollywood clichés in the book. Romantic bosh. Fierstein also gives Teddy Roosevelt a key role in settling the strike when in fact he didn’t have any role in the strike at all.
Here’s the facts about the strike:
The price of the newspapers was raised a year earlier than the strike, during the Spanish-American war of 1898, but circulation was so high newsies didn’t mind. After the very short war was over papers went back to their old price, except for the Pulitzer’s World and Hearst’s Journal. Sales dropped dramatically so newsies were really hurting and their anger eventually fueled the walkout.
The actual strike started on July 20, 1899. Hundreds of newsies refused to sell World and Journal. They surround any boy who did screaming “scab” and convinced or scared many into joining them. Far from a press blackout the many other papers in New York City that had not been struck printed stories about the strike including these from the New York Times. Looking down their noses on the children the papers quoted them in dialect so instead of, “certainly,” they would describe the newsie as having said “soitenly.”
By the second day of the strike it had spread from the top of Manhattan up to the Bronx. Hundreds of newsies took part in marches and when they saw offending newspapers they would shred them. There were some older women who would peddle newspapers and but by the third day they joined the strike, too. The stuff about printing a newsies newspaper on Pulitizer’s own press is all Hollywood, but the boys did get a printer to print up “handbills”, small leaflets, which they gave out by the thousands.
Police did try to break up the strike, but their punching power was reduced because there was a big trolley strike going on at the same time along with smaller conflicts. Pulitzer tried to hire men to sell the papers for a guaranteed wage, $2 a day, a handsome amount in those days, but he got few takers. Rallies got larger. One was reportedly 3,000 strong. There were marches on the Brooklyn Bridge completely tying up traffic. The strike spread to New Haven, CT and Fall River, Massachusetts. Here’s a New York Times report mentioning that the strike had spread to Jersey City. The Newsdealers and Stationers Association (representing people who sold papers at newsstands) stepped in and endorsed the strike. . Daily circulation at the World plunged from 360,000 to 125,000. The newsies formed the Newsboys Union Strike Committee and put a 50 year old adult named James Neil as its head and Racetrack Higgins, a Brooklyn newsie, as Vice President.
It doesn’t seem that the strike ended with some dramatic meeting and an agreement. The Bowery Boys podcast talks about it fizzling out. The price of papers at the World did not go down. However, Pulitzer did make a big concession. For the first time all unsold papers would be bought back by distributors at full price. The strike committee rejected the agreement, but after two weeks out on strike the newsies went back to work. That had a victory.
Some Lessons for Us
- You don’t need a union to go on strike. The newsboy strike came first and the union afterwards. The biggest strike in U.S. history was the 2006 Latino “boycott”, millions of Latino workers stayed out of work and marched in a successful protest against anti-immigrant legislation. No unions called that strike. This augurs well for the upcoming WomenStrike and Mayday actions.
- You don’t have to have one charismatic leader to win. The two main strike leaders of the newsies were Kid Blink and David Simmons. Midway through the strike someone accused them of taking money from Pulitzer. A meeting found them innocent, but they resigned anyway. The strike went on with other leadership. In fact the strike was successful even though the strike committee was against the final agreement.
- You do need solidarity. The newsies kept talking to brother newsboys further and further away. And they convinced sister news sellers to help, too
- You need to be out in the streets. The waifs didn’t just tamely picket. They took the streets and tied up the Brooklyn Bridge repeatedly.
- You need to tell your own story. Though the strike did get newspaper coverage, to get the real story out the newsies gave out thousands of handbills with a simple message. Today the job is to get the word out on social media in the face of slick corporate news websites.
- You got to hit them where it hurts them the most, in their wallets. Pulitzer was losing money, lots of money. That’s why he finally came around.
- You don’t need the politicians. The kids didn’t run to the elected officials or Tammany Hall for help. They didn’t get help from Roosevelt. They won it on their own.
And a little bit more about “Newsies”
The Jack Kelly who is the hero of the Disney movie and the Disney play was modeled after “ Jack Sullivan”. He really wasn’t “the leader” of the strike. He was known for making one rousing speech during the strike and becoming president of the “Newsboy Association of Greater New York” after the strike which in 1904 set up a “clubhouse” for the newsboys where they could bathe, read and play pool. He had a varied career and at one point was a bodyguard for William Randolph Hearst. When he got married it was under the authority of the Ohav Tzedek synagogue and on his marriage license is the name Jacob Reich. So apparently “Jack Sullivan” was actually a Jew and the original Disney movie more or less got it right.
Ten years later the distributor in Hartford, CT for the World and Journal stopped paying newsboys for unsold papers prompting a strike in that city. Read about it here in an article by Stephen Thornton that includes authentic Louis Hine photos of the actual Hartford newsboys.