What to do with the mattresses?
“There will always be a strike lurking around the corner. Some newspapers have endured shutdowns lasting longer than six months. If it is not employees striking, it will be distributors. It’s like a Damocles’ sword dangling over the head in some of the markets where unions are stronger. Every one of us will have to face it, one day or another. It is like an ongoing persecution, and you can’t run forever. You can’t negotiate with them forever, either. Eventually you will have to deal with a strike, and you will lose your mind.”
With this preface in my head, heard from those older and more experienced, I was hit one day with the fact that the newsroom of our Paper was shutting down. “Any chance to sit down and talk?” I asked, naively. Ours was a center leaning newspaper with a leftist newsroom. That fact alone convinced us right away that inertia was going to throw us from one side to the other, with no hope of resolution. Not to mention all the noise going on about the “injustices” being committed, some of which, I realize today, were absolutely true…
A covert mobilization of employees was already going on. You could feel conspiracy in the air. During interminable meetings, the board tried to mobilize the “loyal”, or those able to “give us each day our daily copy.” Distribution, marketing and sales started scrambling to find ways to make sure we hit the newsstands every morning although we had no clue about what would result from the strike.
As for myself, I had a logistical assignment. I had to find space outside of our headquarters to assemble a support newsroom and to house the people who would surely be denied entrance to the workplace by the shifts of watchmen surrounding the building. Some of us, however, would have to agree to spend the night at the newspaper and build the necessary beach head with the production team. And so we did, reinventing ourselves with quite a bit of creativity and facing a war that promised to be long. I decided to lodge the newsroom reporters in a five-star hotel rooms. True that I had been the General Director of said hotel. But then, what experience didn’t I have in life? Hotel keeper and journalist…hummmm…. “I did it my way” would Sinatra sing.
We managed to get helicopters from the local, regional airport to transport the printing and systems personnel. A heliport on the top of our building made this operation feasible, albeit restricted by the size of the aircraft (we knew from the planning stages that we didn’t exactly have Blackhawks available…)
We had a lot of people and very limited room in the air transportation, but we thought that this way we could face the first day of the strike while planning the further stages of the operation. But what about the second and third days? We were sure that the strike team would find ways to prevent the helicopters from taking off. We would have to constantly change the assigned location for the pick up. But how were we going to maintain secrecy and avoid leaking information about the different locations in a company where information spread like wildfire? If a single salary raise was given in that newspaper, all the other 600 employees would learn about it in minutes. Termination notices spread in real time throughout the corridors, in a true system of 100% coverage in a local market…
Walkie-talkies were bought to coordinate the locations from which to transfer employees to the newspaper via heliport, together with small shuttle buses to pick up and drop people at the airport. Not only the reporters, but there was another item, also – one hundred thin mattresses. Yes, because we would have to spend the night – at least the first night – at the office. After all, we had to win the strike. We would be able to show everyone that we were prepared to put out a paper every morning without the daily presence of an insurgent newsroom. But then we had another problem: what about food? And it went on and on. The more problems we had, the more we had to solve.
“We know how to make newspapers and this is a generation of administrators that never learned how to deal with strikes,” said the head of Human Resources, leading me to expect special training sessions in the future on that topic. I need to explain one thing here about Brazil: at that time after 20 years of dictatorship during which strikes were forbidden, no one had any experience with these movements. We had learned how to run away from the military cavalry during street demonstrations by throwing corks on the ground or small marbles
to force the horses to trip. But, striking? There was no tradition of that, not where we came from.
I left to go to the newspaper on the eve of the expected uproar like someone leaving for the battlefield. It was almost like a tearful goodbye at the door of the house, something like “When will I see you again?” My people were all ready, extremely excited with the perspective of sleeping over at the workplace and on the eve of a face-off with the strikers. From my specific department, we were around 30 people; I was one of the VPs and we were in charge of circulation, distribution, marketing and sales. I left my mattress leaned against the wall of my office, like a totem for armed resistance. To enter the building carrying those hundred mattresses without letting anyone see us was not an easy thing to do, so we decided to go in at dawn, with our army of Brancaleone, in defense of our institution. We ate dinner, everyone tense. Some people said they expected a shout out. Someone asked how can there be an exchange of fire if nobody has a gun? We were defined and totally unprepared for imminent war.
I set my alarm clock for seven in the morning and took a tranquilizer to prepare myself for a difficult 24 hours and thought to myself that we would have to “kill one lion a day.”
I was up by six thirty and went to the window, ready to see a crowd screaming for their rights, assuming they had any. Nothing. Not a single soul in the street, only cars and even they were rolling by lazily. It’s still early, I thought. No striker will wake up at five in the morning to block an entrance to any building. Newspapers only start their feverish activity later in the day, anyway. I went down to the lobby. The metal screens on the doors were lowered to protect the glass and only a small entrance on the side of the building was open to serve as the only access during that fateful day.
Several hours passed. Suddenly someone told us that a few journalists were approaching, walking in a group. I went to look and it was just a sports columnist who wrote sharp-pointed stories and was known as a bohemian, holding a bottle of scotch (At that hour in the morning?) and two other reporters in animated conversation. They had a banner rolled up under their arms. I thought they were the first “combatants” of that, the longest of days. I went up to have a better view. Nothing, just the three of them, by then sitting down on the sidewalk. At three in the afternoon I had to face the frustration of a cancelled strike and we all looked at each other feeling fooled by an aborted adventure.
Nothing happened. Nobody knew how to strike like they know today. I started to think about what to do with the one hundred mattresses and the labor that would be required to disband the troops without a single shot having been fired.
The mattresses stood there laughing at me for quite a while. I hid the one in my office behind the curtains. Later, with the window open and the wind blowing, it fell down to the floor as if to show my own inability to forecast strikes.And nothing else ever happened, only this pitiable story to tell you.
Author/Contact: Sergio Rego Monteiro is former president of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association (INMA). Based in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, Mr. Monteiro was the first Latin American to serve in this volunteer capacity in INMA’s 80 year history. In addition, he serves as a journalist, marketing columnist, and author of three books.He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org