NEW YORK — George E. McDonald, a union leader who helped navigate organized labor’s orderly retreat from its peak of power in the New York newspaper industry at the end of the century and, by some accounts, helped save the city’s surviving tabloids, died last Sunday in Monmouth Park, N.J. He was 90.
Mr. McDonald headed the New York Allied Printing Trades Council, an umbrella group representing leaders of the city’s 10 newspaper unions, from 1966 to 1996, a period that began with the collapse of three major New York City daily newspapers. In the following years, two more papers teetered on the edge of failure, and technological innovations began eliminating thousands of union jobs.
Mr. McDonald was labor’s field marshal in an almost continuous Cold War between the unions and the newspaper owners, who demanded staff cuts and more automation amid steady declines in revenue and readership.
The hostilities formed a pattern of provocations, retreats, negotiations, 11th-hour settlements, and emergency rescues, with almost every case ending in work rule concessions and fewer jobs.
As president and spokesman for the council, Mr. McDonald wielded less raw power than some of its other members, like the pressmen’s and drivers’ leaders, who could halt newspaper production or delivery. (Mr. McDonald belonged to the council as the longtime president of New York Mailers Union Local 6, representing the workers who count, bundle, tie, and stack newspapers as they come off the presses.)
But his optimistic demeanor, and his talent for building alliances, made him an effective leader in an era of dwindling options for union members, experts say.
“He was caught in this huge transformation,” said Joshua Freeman, a Queens College professor who specializes in New York City labor history. Jobs with centuries of tradition behind them were threatened, Freeman added, and Mr. McDonald, who had worked in the mailroom of The New York Times, understood viscerally what those jobs meant to workers and their families.
“These were good jobs, middle-class jobs,” Freeman said.
Mr. McDonald and other union leaders were stunned by the 1966 collapse of three newspapers — The New York Herald Tribune, The World Telegram & Sun, and The Journal American. The World Journal Tribune, a hybrid daily newspaper created from the remnants of all three, closed in 1967, after eight months.
Fairly or not, the loss of those papers and their thousands of jobs was often attributed to the crippling 114-day newspaper strike of 1962-63. A fourth paper, The Daily Mirror, shut down in 1963.
By all accounts, Mr. McDonald saw his role as preventing more newspaper failures and saving as many jobs as he could.
In the 1980s, he led efforts to find buyers for The Daily News and The New York Post, which were both hemorrhaging money, when their owners sought to sell them.
When new buyers emerged, promising to save thousands of jobs if the unions would no longer demand more workers than necessary for a task, known as featherbedding, he bargained with them for contracts that he hoped would preserve as many jobs as possible while keeping the papers alive. He urged The Post’s employees, for example, to accept a 20 percent wage cut in 1990.
Mr. McDonald coordinated a half-dozen strikes, including a bruising 88-day citywide strike in 1978 and a five-month strike against The News in late 1990 and early 1991.
In every case, he once told an interviewer, labor leaders faced the same dilemma: lose the strike and damage the union, or win the strike and damage ailing newspapers and the livelihoods of workers.
It was better, he said, to avoid strikes if possible.
“Nobody is going to be happy,” he said after initialing a 1987 agreement with The News that cut labor costs by 13 percent through staff buyouts and work-rule concessions. But, he added, “The News has got problems, and the unions are willing to give some relief.”
The 1990-91 Daily News strike, which was widely considered a big union victory, was never Mr. McDonald’s idea. It was sparked by a dispute at a printing plant that set off a domino effect of consequences, leaving the unions no choice, he later said.
When it was over, the newspaper’s owners, the Tribune Co., put The News up for sale. Each of the three successive owners, including the real estate tycoon Mortimer B. Zuckerman, the current owner, won union concessions eliminating hundreds of jobs.