Bob Frederiksen Walked the Walk for All of Us

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Robert Frederiksen, seated right, president of the Providence Newspaper Guild on Nov. 25, 1960, signs the first contract with The Providence Journal Co. along with assistant publisher Edwin Young. Observing are, from left, Guild members Thomas Stevens, Norman Medrech, Davis Griffith, Donald MacLean, James McMullen and Wilbur Doctor.

 

Providence Guild mourns
passing of a courageous leader

By Brian C. Jones
Retired PNG member

Robert C. Frederiksen, one of the founders of the Providence Newspaper Guild and president of the union when it won its first contract at the Providence (R.I.) Journal, died Dec. 5. He was 92.

An environmental reporter, Frederiksen worked 51 years for the Providence Journal, joining the paper in 1951, when it was known as the Journal Bulletin after its morning and afternoon papers.

He was among a group of newsroom workers with the courage and tenacity to win union representation at a newspaper whose management fiercely opposed extending labor protections to that group, even though press operators and other production workers already were unionized.

In 1959, Frederiksen signed the charter of Chapter 41 of the American News paper Guild along with W. Redwood Wright, James M. McMullen, Donald Smith. James N. Rhea and Winfield I. Parks Jr.

From the beginning of the drive toward a union, the paper’s owners punished some supporters of the movement by restricting their assignments, and sought to dissuade others through one-on-one conversations in which management supervisors argued the alleged pitfalls of unionization.

One of Frederiksen’s contemporaries was Ben H. Bagdikian, a star reporter at the paper for 15 years, who later became a reporter, editor and ombudsman for the Washington Post and then dean of the school of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

Bagdikian, a national journalism expert who died earlier this year at 96, described the unionization fight in his 1995 memoir, Double Vision, devoting a chapter to the industry’s labor struggles under the title, “I Discover I Have a Union Problem.”

His “problem” was months of enforced idleness during 1954, receiving no assignments whatsoever. Bagdikian speculated that the paper’s managers, understanding how eager he was to write stories – he was part of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered a deadly bank robbery the year before – would prompt him to leave the paper.

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Robert Frederiksen, seated on a bench in front of the Journal in 2013, was still active enough to join Guild members Greg Smith, left, Bob Kerr, and administrator Betsy Regan at a rally.

“I was frozen out of the newsroom decorum and clockwork,” he wrote. “As a union-minded reporter, I was being treated by my editors with unchanging coldness. It was shocking. Life at ‘work’ became painful. It was worse than being called and told, ‘You’re fired.’ I suppose the paper’s law firm had warned them not to fire me but to make life for me so miserable that I would quit voluntarily and be a warning to other reporters harboring thoughts of joining the union.”

The tactic backfired. Bagdikian wrote that he became angry at the way management could turn its approval of reporters on and off ­– the previous year, the newspaper had run a big advertisement in a trade publication praising Bagdikian for winning a national award, the headline proclaiming “We’re Proud of Ben Bagdikian, but Not Surprised”).

One of the central reasons that Frederiksen, Bagdikian and the others fought so hard was the most basic: stingy salaries. Reporters’ pay was so low, Bagdikian said, that he had to take freelance assignments for Time and Life magazines in order to support his family.

“The low salaries for reporters contrasted with the higher pay and better health, pension, and vacation benefits for production workers at the Journal and Bulletin,” Bagdikian recalled. “They had a union and we did not. The message could not have been more clear.”

The position of management was that if the union won, reporting quality would go down, “drones and deadbeats” would get the same pay as high-performing journalists and the staff would be cut back, with disloyal reporters targeted for layoffs.

The initial unionization effort failed, with 127 newsroom employees voting against, compared to 89 ballots in favor cast by Frederiksen, Bagdikian and others. However, the union backers sought a second vote five years later, which won.

And on Nov. 25, 1960, after nearly a year-and-a-half of negotiations, Frederiksen was seated at a table with Edwin Young, assistant publisher of the newspaper, signing the Guild’s first contract.

The union went on to represent advertising, janitorial and other workers at the paper, and today the Guild has combined forces with locals at the Woonsocket Call and Pawtucket Times in Rhode Island, and, in Massachusetts, with the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and the Brockton Enterprise.

As Bagdikian wrote, the drive for professional wages and union contract protections would not end, either in Providence, or across the country, where most reporters and other workers would still be unrepresented and underpaid.

While Frederiksen and Bagdikian were in their 90s, the Providence Newspaper Guild was again at the bargaining table, this time seeking a first contract with Gatehouse Media, which bought the Providence Journal in 2014.

And Frederiksen was also a signer of the founding charter of the Communications Workers of America Retired Members’ Chapter for the Providence Newspaper Guild local in 2011.

A memorial service was Jan. 14 at the First Unitarian Church of Providence.