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Chronicle, Examiner Staffs Strike : Labor: Only a few copies of San Francisco's two daily newspapers are published after four days of negotiations fail to avert the walkout. Three people are injured and some property is damaged.


SAN FRANCISCO — Columnists joined Teamsters on the picket line Wednesday as employees at San Francisco's two daily newspapers went on strike for the first time since 1968, leaving an information-hungry city without its daily newsprint fix at the height of the political season.

Union leaders representing 2,600 employees of the morning Chronicle and afternoon Examiner ordered reporters, copy editors, librarians, drivers and vendors to walk off the job at 10 p.m. Tuesday after four days of round-the-clock negotiations failed to break an impasse with management over salary and job security.

Pickets went up outside the newspapers' offices and at printing plants in San Francisco and the East Bay. Police reported scattered episodes of damage to delivery trucks and violence as pickets clashed with non-union drivers and security guards. Three people were hospitalized with injuries, including a replacement driver who suffered a cracked skull when he was hit by a lead pipe. A few arrests were made, but most individuals were released.

"This has a union-busting smell to it," said Herb Caen, 78, the legendary Chronicle columnist known as "Mr. San Francisco," who walked the picket line with his younger colleagues under a clear blue sky at the newspapers' offices south of downtown. "I hope I'm wrong, but this seems like heavy stuff."

Accustomed more to covering such events than being newsmakers themselves, pickets expressed concern Wednesday that a protracted strike could spell doom for one or the other of the storied newspapers, which along with many other major metropolitan dailies have recently suffered steep circulation declines.

"The economic impact of the strike could be devastating to one or both of the newspapers," said Steven Chin, 35, an Examiner reporter who has been negotiating on behalf of the unions.

For the six months that ended Sept. 30, the Chronicle reported weekday circulation of 509,548, a decline of 6.38% from the comparable period in 1993. The Examiner's circulation was 112,051, down 10.32%. The newspapers' combined Sunday edition had circulation of 679,988, off 3.14%.

Since 1965, the two newspapers have published under a joint operating agreement, sharing production expenses and revenues but maintaining separate news and editorial staffs. Contract negotiations have been under way since July, 1993, and contracts expired last November.

Both sides expressed chagrin that they had been unable to come to terms after reporting progress over the weekend and on Monday. The Conference of Newspaper Unions, made up of representatives of eight unions negotiating jointly, had postponed a strike deadline of midnight Monday.

Management representatives said they were mystified that the unions had gone on strike and were disturbed by violence against replacement drivers and sabotage of newspaper equipment.

One printing press was disabled, 20 cars were destroyed and five trucks were disabled, James Hale, chief executive of the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, said at an afternoon news conference.

"I was surprised that the negotiations came to an abrupt end," he said. "The second thing that surprised me was the intensity of the anger."

The two sides differed sharply in their interpretations of who was to blame for the deadlock.

According to Chin, the key issue prompting the walkout was job security for the drivers who deliver the newspapers to homes and street racks. The company contends that 600 drivers are too many given declines in circulation and wants to cut that number by 150 to 200 through attrition. The drivers maintain that their workloads have been doubled.

"It's a health and safety issue," said Francis Mendonca, an Examiner driver who was walking the picket line at a printing plant south of downtown San Francisco. "I'm already doing the job of 2 1/2 people, and I hardly have time for lunch."

Also at issue is salary. The union was seeking a pay raise of $12 a week, or 3.4%. The company had offered a 2.4% increase.

One of the last big-city newspapers to be privately held by a family dynasty, the Chronicle is owned by the descendants of Michael H. de Young, who founded the paper in 1865. The Examiner, by far the weaker of the two papers, is owned by Hearst Corp., the company started by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst.

When the two papers, bloodied by their fierce rivalry, merged business operations in 1965, they were about even in circulation. Since then, the Examiner has watched circulation sink. Even so, the papers continue to share costs and split revenues evenly, a lopsided arrangement that has caused much bad blood on the part of the Chronicle owners.

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