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KMPX San Francisco Radio Workers Strike 1968
In the 1960’s, San Francisco was a center of the youth counterculture that was spreading across the United States. The civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Red Power movement, the Feminist movement, and LGBQT movement had all been challenging the dominance of the governing political elite.
In addition to these movements, white, middle class, educated and predominately male citizens formed a “counterculture” that opposed American Capitalism and Imperialism, protesting the war in Vietnam and the American system of representative democracy, and engaging in psychedelic experiences such as hallucinogenic drug usage and participation in the growing rock and roll culture.
In 1967, the radio KMPX, a previously “hip” radio station, was in poor financial shape and broadcast primarily foreign language programs. Larry Miller, a disk jockey that worked the “graveyard shift” from 12 am to 6 am pioneered a show-style in which he abandoned the formula of pop hits accompanied by advertisement in favor of playing rock and roll music in sets designed to flow together. Later that year, Tom Donahue joined the station as program manager, and rearranged the station to play freeform shows similar to Miller’s. By the end of 1967, KMPX had become the most listened to station in San Francisco and its income had multiplied by five.
Despite this rise in commercial success, by spring of 1968, wages had not improved for the disc jockeys that had been largely responsible for the growth of the station’s popularity, and the owner, Leon Crosby, began restricting what the disc jockeys could do and say over the air. Larry Miller was fired, and on 11 March Crosby fired Tom Donahue.
On 16 March 1968, the KMPX staff held a meeting at staff member Bob Prescott’s house, and Donahue suggested that the workers strike to achieve the demands that he had not been able to provide for them as manager. The disc jockeys and other various studio workers at KMPX supported this plan of action, and formed their own trade union, the Amalgamated American Federation of International FM Workers of the World (AAFIFMWW), North Beach Local No.1, going on strike on 18 March.
That same day, the KMPX staffers distributed a flier with 11 demands, including wage raises, the reinstatement of Tom Donahue and of the former sales manager Melvin Milan, non discrimination towards union members, compensation for the time the workers were on strike, and contracts ensuring that the staffers shared in the profits of the station. They also distributed a flier calling on San Franciscans to boycott companies that the KMPX relied on to function.
In response to the KMPX strike, disc jockeys at KMPX’s sister station KPPC in Pasadena went on strike in solidarity with the KMPX staff, and formed their own branch of the AAFIFMWW. Steven Hirsh, also known as Edward Bear, announced the strike over KMPX’s radio station just before 3 am that morning, and called on listeners to stop supporting KMPX.
The KMPX strikers picketed outside of the KMPX studio, and the first night of the strike, rock bands including the Grateful Dead and the Ace of Cups came and performed to show their support for the striking radio workers, and many citizens came out and stood with the strikers and listened to the music.
At the beginning of the strike, KMPX had difficulties replacing the striking radio station workers, and was forced to scale back on their broadcasts. However, as the strike wore on, they were able to recruit local college students to restart and continue their programs.
Throughout the duration of the strike, other rock bands performed at the picket line, and asked their record companies to stop KMPX from broadcasting their recordings until the strikers’ demands were met. All local businesses agreed to honor the strike except for United Airlines and the Carousel Ballroom.
As the strikers continued to picket, they gathered more and more support. The Rolling Stones sent the workers at KMPX a letter endorsing their actions. Over the next week, the local chapter of the National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the National Maritime Union, and the International Labor Workers Union all declared their support for the striking radio workers. In addition, the newly formed Peace and Freedom Party endorsed the striking workers at their convention in 1968.
The owner Crosby, however, refused to negotiate with the workers, and the strike continued throughout March.
On 3 April, the strikers organized a benefit concert to raise money and support for the strike, helping them to continue their efforts throughout April and into May.
KMPX owner Leon Crosby continuously refused to negotiate with the strikers, and on 13 May the workers with the encouragement of Donahue accepted an offer to join radio station KSAN, where they ended the strike and resumed their freeform radio programs. The strikers, while generating lots of media attention and support, were unable to achieve any of their goals.