Boston will stop its presses
Budget woes prompt city to outsource production
Profits from the pungent ink and lead letters of Boston’s municipal printing department once earned the city enough money to build a three-story brick factory in the North End.
But the rattle and clank of collators, cutters, saddle stitch staplers — even an old-fashioned Platen press with a hand lever and foot pedal — will go quiet today after 113 years. The red brick building at the corner of North and Richmond streets will shut its doors at day’s end.
A budget crunch has pushed Boston out of the printing business, prompting the city to outsource the production of everything from business cards to death certificates to temporary “no parking’’ signs. The move, city officials say, will save an estimated $800,000 next fiscal year and $1 million annually going forward.
The closure will eliminate the jobs of 16 printers, binders, and compositors, many of whom have worked for the city for decades. In a tough budget year, most of the attention has focused on layoffs of library workers and school custodians. The tradesmen feel forgotten.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,’’ said Bob Lohmar, a pressman and camera operator who has worked in the plant for 13 years. “Most of us are older and have been printing a long time. We don’t know much else. And we do a great job here.’’
The city tried to lessen the blow by announcing the closure 17 months ago and hiring some workers in other departments, including five who were recently offered jobs as parking enforcement officers. A few other layoffs will follow at the end of September, bringing the total number of job losses to 11, but that includes people who are eligible to retire with health insurance and other benefits.
For the city, closing the plant was a business decision, relegating pressmen and others in the craft to the same fate as blacksmiths and candlestick makers. Desktop computers, digital documents, and sophisticated copiers have dramatically reduced the city’s need for its own press, officials said.
The large jobs that remain — parent-teacher handbooks, tourist brochures, bond prospectuses — do not justify subsidizing the salaries, pensions, and machinery needed to run a municipal printing plant, they said. In the 2009 budget year, the plant cost the city $2.65 million when pension contributions, health insurance, overtime, and other overhead charges are included. In the budget up for a vote today in the City Council, the Menino administration has allotted $1.4 million to pay for outside printing, a figure that includes retaining three employees to manage the outsourced work.
“Revolutions in copying and laser-printing technology, as well as desktop design, have lowered the cost and improved the quality of products we can purchase,’’ Meredith Weenick, a senior city budget official, said in a statement.
The three unions that represent the tradesmen dispute the city’s numbers. They argue that the plant has been mismanaged and could run at a profit if the city sought printing work from other municipalities. City departments, the unions say, have slowly steered work away from the plant, sending jobs to outside venders to justify the closure.
“There is a realization that commercial printing has changed dramatically over the last few years. There is no doubt about that. But there is still enough work to be printed by the city on a daily basis,’’ said Martin A. Callaghan, president of the Boston Newspaper Printing Pressmen’s Union, which represents the city workers; the union also represents pressmen at the Globe.
“We feel we fulfill a city need at the best rates for the taxpayers,’’ he said.
The Menino administration has said that less than 2 percent of the jobs that could have been handled at the plant went to outside printers. The work amounted to roughly $30,000 a year, which officials say amounted to a fraction of the plant’s operating deficit.
Thirty percent of all printing nationally has disappeared, with the number of printing sites in the United States falling from a peak of 65,000 in 1995 to 35,000 today, according to Frank Romano, president of the Museum of Printing in North Andover.
“Every city, state, and federal printing operation in the US is cutting back or closing its doors,’’ Romano said.
Some large cities do still run successful municipal printing plants, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Baltimore, which has 30 employees working two shifts, according to Bob Neubauer, editor of In-Plant Graphics, a trade magazine. “The ones that are successful right now are looking out of their parent organization for work,’’ Neubauer said.
Boston has not sought outside printing contracts in recent memory, and it is not clear whether the profits that built the 18,000-square-foot factory in 1932 came from outside work or from other city departments, according to the Menino administration.
Turning the in-house printing plant into a viable commercial operation would require an overhaul at a time when the city is closing libraries and pulling staff out of community centers, officials said.
The building has an assessed value of $3.4 million and occupies prime real estate, a half-block from bustling Hanover Street and new parkland on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. It will take months to remove the chemicals and presses, and the city has not decided whether it will sell the building or put it to another use. A variety of parties have expressed interest in the space, including the North Bennet Street School, which teaches cabinetry and other fine craftsmanship.
Today, parts of the building’s interior resemble a ransacked museum. An out-of-use dark room with red walls. A 6-foot-tall camera as long as a box truck that hasn’t been used in a decade. Shelf after shelf of dusty metal type for Linotype machines, and drawers filled with many alphabets.
The main pressroom, however, still looks like a functioning workshop. A smaller Heidelberg offset letterset churned out its last edition last week of the City Record, the weekly that publishes meetings, job postings, and legal notices.
Production will shift to the copy center in the basement of City Hall, but it is also available on the city’s website.
“The sad part is that there is going to be work here,’’ said Charles Maloney, 58, who began working in the plant in 1988, when the staff numbered about 65. “Why can’t it be done by City of Boston employees, long-term employees?’’
Andrew Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.