Late Wash Post Publisher Faced Down Threat of Labor Violence

By Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:24pm EDT

( - On March 1, 1976, The Washington Post declared an end to the pressmen's strike, replacing its striking workers with non-union press operators. But that major chapter in the newspaper's remarkable history had not come to a complete end.

A month after the strike was over, at least one former unionized pressman continuously sent threatening letters to Post publisher Katherine Graham and other executives at the paper. He later sent later poems warning that their "empire would crumble."

By summer, the former employee had threatened to blow up the newspaper's office building at 1150 15th Street, a threat the newspaper's executives took seriously enough to make a federal case out of it.

That's according to the FBI file on Graham, obtained by Cybercast News Service through the Freedom of Information Act.

Tensions between the union and Post management began when management saw the need to cut production costs. According to a Post article on the strike, the management thought it needed to get control of labor relations if it was to move to the "front rank" of newspapers. Management thought the pressmen's union influence had led to work slowdowns in the past and "a department run amok," the Post article said.

The Post's chief labor negotiator Lawrence Wallace -- who had reportedly already trained managers and other employees at the company on how to operate a printing press -- told the union men that the paper would continue to publish even if they went on strike.

The union called a strike, and early on Oct. 1, 1975, pressmen vandalized the presses, beat up a night foreman, and caused $270,000 in damage to equipment, leaving it inoperable, the Post reported. Union president James A. Dugan was quoted as blaming the company for causing "frustration" among the pressmen.

Year's later, former famed Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee described the scene to the American Society of Newspaper Editors: It was "rollers slashed, Coke bottles thrown into the gears, fire started in the reel room, and fire extinguishers -- fire extinguisher hoses cut to render them useless."

The Post did not publish the day after the union called a strike. However, it managed to get an edition out every day after that while the strike lasted. Graham, as publisher, was known for staying at the paper for long hours during the strike, stuffing newspapers in bags herself, according to several published articles.

Bradlee recalled in an interview with Cybercast News Service that he personally worked alongside Graham in the mail room.

"The thing about that strike was the decision to go ahead and publish ourselves. There was a real struggle at first," Bradlee said. "That first issue was a really ratty looking little paper. But gradually we got it until we were publishing a full newspaper, and I thought that was extraordinarily important. ... Whatever else you did, you worked extra hours doing another job."

Bradlee told the ASNE gathering in 2001, after Graham's death, that the newspaper would not have made it through the strike without Graham's toughness.

"You could see the sadness and discouragement in Kay Graham's eyes, but you could also see her jaw tighten with determination to get a paper out," Bradlee told ASNE. "Somehow, maybe in a couple of days. Then another, and another, and finally that determination put us back in business stronger than ever."

In a 1976 flyer titled "The Post Coverup," put out by the union -- and included in the FBI file -- the union said, "The Post diverts public attention from union busting tactics that prompted strike by focusing on the 'millions' of dollars damage to the press. Actual damage figures later amount to only one per cent of Post's highly publicized original estimate."

The union flyer even mocked the paper's crowning journalistic achievement.

"Hiding behind her 'All the President's Men' image as a great liberal patron of the reporters who slew the Watergate dragon, Katherine Graham has been trying to bust the unions that produce the Post with an anti-labor drive that would warm the cockles of Nixon fat-cat contributor's hearts," the flyer said.

Some members continued to picket after the paper declared the strike over, according to union literature.

Then, on April 7, 1976 -- more than a month after the Post ended the strike -- a former pressman wrote a letter to Graham, recalling that one former colleague killed himself.

"You have the world at your feet, and I was a peon (name redacted) bottom," the typed letter said. "I am willing to bet you that if you let me talk with you, that together we can solve some of the labor disputes at your troubled newspaper."

At the bottom of the letter is a hand written P.S.: "Your empire can come crumbling down just as easy as mine did."

Another typed letter to Graham, dated April 12, but also with the name redacted, says: "Look around you, the world is on the brink of destruction, fighting, dying, why? Katherine, why? Money. No. The power and control money brings -- money buys anything and you Katherine bought my soul for $1,000. I want my soul back."

The letter-writer also called Graham a "very troubled woman."

"You Katherine don't know what you stand for but whoever has the ear of your throne knows you are somebody's fool or maybe you are the Devil in disguise," said the writer. "As I have known from the start, you are an evil woman. Prove me wrong, take me on, I am super man, you ain't nobody."

Several different copies of the same typed letter were carbon copied to other Post employees, but their names were also redacted. The hand written portion seemed aimed at people other than Graham, such as one note that said, "Take me on, chump!"

Another handwritten note said, "Your father would turn over in his grave if he knew that you threw out people that made your newspaper." Other versions of the typed letters included obscenities scribbled at the bottom.

At the bottom of one letter, the writer said: "I am crazy! Laugh!"

On May 5, 1976, another flood of letters came into the Post. These were typed as poems.

"Because the fact the turtle has stored in his brain have been put in newspapers all over town, and I know your empire is about to crumble down.
"Because I (name redacted) have the solution to the mystery "and you Katherine Graham are just plain history.
"So before it is too late and you have nothing to say, "you had better get down on your knees and pray. Pray, Pray, Pray!..."

The handwritten P.S. said, "Katherine -- I am a friend and I do have a solution -- because woman I have Facts and the next letter will have some solid proof that your empire is about to crumble so wake up talk with me before it is too late."

Handwritten at the bottom of another copy of the same poem, the writer said, "You all are going to bite the dust when my next letter comes out, Chump."

That summer, the Post was basking in the success of "All the President's Men," a Hollywood movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, that was based on Post reporters Bob Woodward's and Carl Bernstein's book about the Watergate scandal.

On June 9, 1976, a Washington Post employee was told he had a message to call the letter writer. The employee - whose name was redacted from the file - told the FBI he didn't feel it was uncommon to get a call from this person.

When the Post employee returned the call, the man "indicated his displeasure with his mistreatment by the Post and stated that he was going to come down and blow up the Post," said a subsequent FBI report on the conversation.

"He stated he had black balls already separated in the Post and he would stand out on the street and smash a black ball with a baseball bat and blow the place apart," the FBI report said. "He stated he did not want to hurt (name redacted) or any of the other Post employees but if need be he would do it."

The Post employee immediately told one of his colleagues, whose name was also redacted, about the threatening phone call. The colleague said he had received a similar call from a man who was outside the building picketing. The man who made that previous call had refused to give an interview to the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.

The Post employees took their concern to another colleague, who called the D.C. police. The police dispatched the bomb squad to the Post and conducted a thorough search that evening. They found no bomb.

"God, I'd forgotten that, if you want to know the truth," Bradlee told Cybercast News Service. But after discussing the contents of the FBI file, he said, "I think I do remember that now."

"It doesn't make my highlight list of what was going on at the time," Bradlee said in the interview. "If we took it serious -- I'm sure we did -- I don't think anybody really felt we were going to be blown to smithereens by it. I don't remember the guy or the guy's name, but I do have a memory of it."

Still, the next day, a concerned Post employee contacted Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl S. Rauh, who suggested the Post inform the FBI of the matter. The Post provided the FBI with all of the letters, as well as the envelopes the letters came in. Some of the letters were delivered to the front desk.

On June 11 that year, the FBI special agent sent the material to Rauh. Rauh, facing a heavy schedule, delegated the case to fellow Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles H. Roistacher. Roistacher reviewed the matter, which was already under investigation by the D.C. police arson-bomb squad and the D.C. Fire Department.

He decided not to prosecute the letter writer for the threatening letters themselves because, as the FBI memorialized it in its files, they had not "contained sufficient prosecutive merit within the purview of the extortion issue." However, he did tell the FBI he would consider prosecuting the bomb threat.

It was on June 30 of that year when the FBI interviewed the letter writer at his home in Baltimore. According to their report, they immediately identified themselves, the letter writer read a statement advising him of his rights and signed it. The man said he was being represented by an attorney, but agreed to talk to the agents without the attorney present.

The former Post employee confirmed to FBI agents that he wrote the letters to Graham and other Post employees that bore his signature. He also admitted that he made the telephoned bomb threat. But he said these actions were done only "to draw attention to his plight and the plight of striking pressmen at the Post." The man "then stated that he had no intention of carrying out any of these threats," according to the FBI report.

The agents referred the matter to Roistacher that same day. As was the case with the letters, Roistacher saw no need to prosecute the phone call. The FBI report said the prosecutor, determined, "No offense was committed and that the telephonic threat was more of harassment than a matter that could be construed as a violation regarding federal prosecutive elements necessitated for a violation of the bomb threat statute."

The Post still has non-union pressmen today.

Warren Buffet, a member of the Post's Board of Directors, wrote in a tribute to Graham that is posted on the newspaper's corporate Web site that she made the newspaper stronger because she took the risk of fighting the union.

"In the strike's early days, the competing Washington Star bulged with ads while an emaciated Post lost readers and advertisers at an alarming rate," Buffet wrote. "During that period, I watched Kay suffer, tormented by the thought that she was destroying what her family had spent more than 40 years building. Some of her most trusted advisors urged her to cave. But, with her knees knocking louder than ever before, she persevered -- and won."

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