Strike! The Covington Pioneer

Settled in the Allegheny Mountains midway between Lexington and White Sulphur Springs, Covington is Virginia’s third smallest city with just under 6,000 residents. Today, the newspaper of record there is the Virginian Review, a direct successor of the Covington Virginian, which ran from 1914 until the name changed in 1988. While the Virginian, in some iteration, has been Covington’s newspaper for over 100 years, in April 1981 a competing newspaper made its debut:

Pioneer (1) Issue 1Published from April 16, 1981 until July 18, 1982 the Covington Pioneer, a self-described “strike paper,” was the result of an unwavering effort by sixteen members of Roanoke Typographical Union No. 60 to negotiate better pay with their former employer, the Covington Virginian.

Pioneer Attention Apr. 16, 1981In its introductory issue, the Pioneer clearly laid out its intent: “With this edition of the PIONEER a new paper is on the scene in Covington. . .the PIONEER is a creature of a labor dispute.” The aim of the Pioneer was to pull revenue away from the Virginian to leverage bargaining power for striking employees. “The PIONEER is a strike paper,” the column continued,” It has no purpose beyond the terms of the Union’s negotiations. As soon as a fair contract is settled the PIONEER will cease to publish and go out of business.”

Several of the Pioneer’s writers offered editorial pieces in its first issue explaining their decision to strike. Emory W. Brackman, former sports editor of the Covington Virginian, wrote, “I had always vowed that I would never be involved in a strike, but the Covington Virginian changed that. I have never seen people treated so unfairly. We have been forced into our current situation by the Virginian because. . .they do not believe in paying honest wages to their employees.”

During its fifteen-month run, the Pioneer covered local news, politics, events, sports, marriages, births and deaths. It also provided periodic updates on the status of the strike. Though subsisting on a tight budget, the Pioneer’s look and content reflected the work of a professional and dedicated newspaper staff. Starting out as a weekly, it quickly became a semiweekly. On December 6, 1981 it became a triweekly and began charging 20Pioneer Final Issue July 18, 1982 cents per issue, or $6.75 for a three-month subscription.

With the decertification of the International Typographical Union in 1982, the Pioneer was forced to shut down before reaching successful negotiations with the Covington Virginian. Printing its last issue July 18, 1982, several staff writers shared their disappointment in the paper’s final columns. “Yes, it’s a sad time,” Brackman wrote, “but it is a time we go out holding our heads high. . .The mere mention of a union upsets the stomachs of some people and it is indeed true that some places do not need a union. The reason? If an employer believes in treating his workers like human beings there is no need for a union.” Gwen Barnes contributed a final piece with the telling title, “I Learned Life Isn’t Fair,” and Mark Pifer named his closing article, “Strike Over, But We’re Not Losers.”

Thanks to a generous patron who lent her collection of this notable strike newspaper back in 2012, the Library of Virginia has a complete run of the Covington Pioneer on microfilm. If you can’t get to Richmond, the reels can be interlibrary loaned to your local public library.

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