Bogus! When Typesetters Were Paid To Set Copy That Was Thrown Away

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In 1974, New York City’s three big newspapers were at an impasse with the main printers’ union over automation. The papers wanted to move from hot-metal typesetting into the fancy new world of computerized composition. This would be mean upheaval, requiring retraining and shedding many jobs. Many union typesetters had been pounding away at a Linotype for decades. The Times first aimed for a computerized transition in…1964.

Significantly, the New York union’s moves would set the pace of change for the entire country. Some newspapers had broken unions and others managed successful transitions to early electronic typesetting. But many looked to the New York Typographical Union No. 6, known as “Big Six.” Its members were the first to ever use a Linotype; they were worried about being the last ones, with no job prospects ahead.

But the newspapers didn’t make headway, and even bargained away their right to new forms of “automation” in 1965, according to an April 16, 1974, New York Times article, as part of negotiations that came after the settlement of a 114-day-long newspaper strike in 1962–1963.

Big Six wanted job protections for 2,000 full-time and substitute printers. One of the union’s concerns was that reporters would be able to type their stories into terminals, rather than typewriters, and that text would only be proofread rather than retyped.

But newspaper publishers also wanted to get rid of a long-established related practice that kept typesetters’ jobs, too: so-called bogus (by itself) or bogus copy, in which material  delivered to the newsroom—typically in advertising—already composed for printing was re-set by a typesetter, and then melted down without being used.

That’s right. The work was performed and destroyed.

A long-standing myth told about unions is that such work abounded in factories. In fact, relatively little of it did, especially after a 1947 law. But the Supreme Court upheld printers’ rights to bogus copy. It makes bogus nearly unique in modern labor history. How did a bogus practice gain the ultimate protection—and finally come to an end?

The tension of efficiency and productivity versus workforce levels

Printers first worked within guilds and later unions. These organizations were—like all groups run by and for workers—always in tension with management over improvements in technology. Managers and owners generally want to squeeze as much revenue from labor as they can. After centuries of relatively minor improvements in printing, mechanical advances came roaring in during the 1800s. (I discuss this, particularly related to newspapers, in a related post here, “Flong time, no see.”)

With any mechanical improvement, business owners eke more productivity out of each worker. They can opt to reduce a workforce while requiring less general expertise on the part of workers who remain. Decreasing expenses while making a broadly skilled job into one that requires fewer skills provides a greater return to the owner, and more wage pressure on workers who are more expendable and interchangeable. (Some specialized tasks instead become extremely valuable if they are critical to the job and difficult to master.)

Groups of workers will push back against changes introduced in a way that’s guaranteed to reduce their numbers or pay, sometimes to the detriment of the entire industry in which they work, leading ultimately to massive reductions in employment . This certainly happened to Detroit, as union and non-union labor in other countries fleetly overtook U.S. automakers to make cheaper and more fuel-efficient cars for a new era. The Midwest is still recovering decades later.

Printers weren’t immune to this, nor were other guilds, especially given the slow pace of change. A printer from Gutenberg’s studio in 1450 could have walked into a pressroom in the late 1700s and been quite at home, only surprised at the refinement and speed. A few decades later, that Gutenberg employee would have been shocked and bewildered—and required a lot of retraining.

Printers pushed back against change. As one example, a printer in Scotland, William Ged, across the 1700s tried to perfect a method of creating a mold from type and then casting a printing plate from the mold. This was in part due to a scarcity of typefounding in Scotland, forcing him to import type from England! But it would also reduce the need for repetitive typesetting, as he could keep plates on hand to reprint books and documents, when otherwise he would have to reuse that type and re-set later for any reprints. It would reduce the wear on type, making it last much longer, and offer more flexibility, too.

As Ged tried to put his idea into effect:

He encountered every possible form of opposition from the compositors who, when they corrected one fault, purposely made half a dozen others, and the pressmen, when the masters were absent, battered the letters in the aid of the compositors.—”The New History of Stereotyping,” 1941, by George Kubler

Ultimately, though, there was vastly more demand for printed pieces than production capability in nearly each era. Each improvement in typesetting and printing led to displacement of skills, but also more employment. 

As a 1929 U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Statistics report noted, the introduction of hot-metal composition—someone sitting at a keyboard tapping in letters on a Linotype instead of setting them by hand—initially led to a 60–80% reduction in typesetters. But newspapers grew so rapidly by being able to publish more stories and cheaper, employment skyrocketed: “…in a comparatively short time more compositors were employed than formerly,” the report noted.

Typesetters were largely paid for piecework, even if they were employees, and this persisted into the 20th century for hand-set work even after hot-metal Linotype operators had long received hourly wages. 

Compositors typically received a fix amount per 1,000 “ems.” An em was originally the width of the capital M in a font; later, it was the point size. That rate varied by complexity of matter being set. Typesetting Greek or 5-point legal announcements or mixed fonts paid much higher, according to a very detailed set of union rules. But if a compositor wasn’t setting, they weren’t being paid.

Compositors working in a vocational training printing shop (1900), Hampton, Virginia (photo: LOC)

That was galling, however, when compositors were required to be on site, and no copy was to be had to set. (School bus drivers can suffer this today, not being paid for the middle of the day between two four-hour shifts, but also unable to accomplish other work.) Unions ultimately negotiated a “standing” rate for any idle time, set to a normal speed of setting body copy.

This is where “bogus” copy comes in. Rather than pay printers to be idle and paid at a fixed rate, foremen and publishers would require they set material that would never be used, and paid for this bogus work performed at a standard rate.

In The Writer in January 1888, Geoffrey Perry noted:

The rules of the trade require that after work has begun on a morning paper, time spent in waiting for copy shall be paid for. For many reasons it is not considered best to have too much “waiting” time, which interferes with discipline, demoralizes the comp[ositor] and shows an ugly amount of unprofitable time as a charge of the composing room. So “bogus” or “horse” copy is given out…

The first reference I can find that describes the nature of the work comes years earlier in the American Encyclopaedia of Printing in 1871, which explains that this busy work had to meet certain parameters to qualify under union rules:

When bogus copy is given out in lieu of standing time, it shall not be of such a nature as to preclude the compositor from making fair average wages, viz., intricate or illegible copy, or copy containing great quantities of caps, small caps, italic, points [periods], etc., or running on particular sorts [special characters of type].

(The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1878 attributed this use of the term to Horace Greeley, legendary publisher of the New-York Tribune, who died in 1872.)

This typeset copy wasn’t proofread (the proofreaders were paid on a different basis), and thus typesetters often composed whatever they felt like, ignoring the copy altogether. (Perry quotes some of that in the article linked above.)

A factory inspection report from 1907 describes some of the many ways in which handset typesetters were compensated, including “bogus copy” and standing time.

However, the meaning of bogus shifted as newspapers increased the speed of production. Part of this jump in speed resulted from ever-better molds for pages of type and images, like the ones had Ged tried to create.

By the late 1890s these molds, known as “flong” shifted to use a rugged thick paper, known as “dry flong” or “mats” (short for “matrices”). Earlier “wet” molds allowed newspapers to switch from one-sided, sheet-at-a-time flatbed letterpresses to high-speed rotary presses that could continuously print both sides of paper fed from a roll, then cut and fold the resulting pages; later ones, that required no drying, but only pressure, sped the process up even further. (I go into this in depth in the post noted above.)

While advertisers initially turned to newspapers to design and set their display and other advertising for placement, they eventually moved to early ad agencies that handled all the mechanical details. This especially made sense for companies that advertised across multiple newspapers, a region, or the whole country. 

The agency would design the ad and then duplicate it using advanced technology of the day. This might be with an “ad mat,” which was a type mold just like newspapers used for entire pages, but covering just the exact portion of the page received for the ad. Agencies might instead deliver ads as metal plates, which had higher fidelity, from which the newspaper would make a mold. In any case, the ad would be cut and pasted into the mat for the entire page, which was then cast to make a metal plate that went on the paper’s presses.

Ad mats distributed for men’s facial goods (c. 1950)

Because this ad copy wasn’t typeset at the newspaper, printers’ unions objected to lost work, but demanded redress in a clever way that avoided accusation of performing no work and being paid for it, called “featherbedding.” 

Unions demanded starting in the early 1900s the right to set again any text that appeared in ads or other work that arrived prepared—they wanted to set bogus copy.

Is redundant work considered work at all?

Bogus involved the resetting of type only for local newspaper advertisements that had already been printed. Although the type was reset, it was not used, but was assigned to the “hell box” where it was melted down into lead.—”Wages and Tips in Restaurants and Hotels,” March 1970, U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Statistics

A 1951 New York Times article noted a decision by the National Labor Relations Board that found the practice, nearly 50 years old at the time, “did not represent illegal ‘makework’ or ‘featherbedding.’” The NLRB said that even though the work was thrown away, it didn’t violate the 1947 Taft-Hartley act that forbade unions to require payment “for services which are not performed or are not to be performed.” The Supreme Court upheld the NLRB’s stance in a 1953 decision. 

Yet unions, maybe seeing the writing on the wall (or on the composition table) started to change their approaches to bogus. The 1970 report noted above cites an International Typographic Union (ITU) survey in 1960 that found 65 percent of local unions no longer actually set bogus at all or had set none recently. The ITU followed with more questioning, and revealed that only 2 to 3 percent of locals were really engaged in bogus work. Yet the requirement remained in contracts and on the books.

This survey of locals led to the ITU relaxing a rule in 1969, which then allowed local unions to negotiate away bogus rights in exchange for other benefits. The 1970 labor report noted:

Before the 1969 convention, some locals informally exchanged their bogus clauses for coffee breaks, overtime, time off, sick leave, and other forms of paid leave. With the impetus of the international union’s endorsement of more formal “trade-offs,” many locals apparently negotiated improvements in pensions and in other economic benefits.

The New York union, Big Six, didn’t give up that easily. Bogus was apparently still active and enforced in 1974. This led publishers to make a proposal for ending it, the 1974 Times article explained:

As part of the adjustment to automation, the publishers propose abolition of all future reproduction of this sort in exchange for a one‐time payment by them into a fund intended to encourage printers to retire. Each paper would put into the fund exactly the amount it had spent on “bogus” in 1973.

That apparently became part of the final agreement reached in July 1974. The union and major papers, including the Times agreed to a switchover that gave lifetime—yes, lifetime—employment to 1,785 compositors and press operators. The Big Six members voted 1,009 to 41, recognizing the end of an era. The deal offered incentives for early retirement, some of it coming from the bogus fund, and 200 of those workers covered by the agreement were already over 65.

The Times switched from metal to electronic composition in 1978. The last day is documented in a brief film made by a proofreader at the newspaper. The last of these job-for-life union members finally retired after a 50-year career in 2016. Rudy Stocker transitioned from metal to early computerized phototype to InDesign and Photoshop.”

There was nothing bogus about his work.

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