The Detroit Newspaper Labor War

Against the Current, No. 59, November/December 1995

David Finkel

Sunday, September 10, 4:15 am, at the “Detroit News” printing plant in suburban Sterling Heights: For the past eight hours, several hundred picketers have held the line against trucks leaving the plant carrying the Sunday edition.  At Gate 1, most picketers are facing away from the plant, awaiting an apparently imminent police charge, when a convoy of trucks inside the plant barrels toward them at high speed.  Five are injured as picketers dive for safety; several are pulled away by friends just instants before they would have been crushed under truck wheels.  One truck turns onto Mound Road at such a high speed that it careens on two wheels and nearly turns over.

ON OCTOBER 5, eighty-five days into an increasingly desperate strike against the Detroit Newspaper Agency (DNA), six unions offered to end the strike and return to the terms of the expired contract while negotiations continue.  The DNA publishes both daily papers, the “Detroit News” and the “Free Press”, under terms of a Joint Operating Agreement (JOA).

“All striking employees will return to their former positions,” stipulated the proposal from the Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions.  “All parties will commit to intense bargaining for 30 days,” after which “all unresolved issues will be submitted to binding arbitration.”  Further, “The unions will agree to negotiate modifications and changes in work rules and staffing requirements (to save the papers) $15,000,000 over the next three years.”

DNA management, however, having willingly absorbed tens of millions of dollars in losses and a probable 30% drop in readership in order to break the strike and smash the unions, responded with a lukewarm display of interest.  It was difficult for most observers, pro- or anti-union alike, to read the unions’ proposal as anything other than an offer of surrender.

Workers could return only as needed, said DNA’s labor relations head Tim Kelleher, with “replacement workers” allowed to keep their jobs and with a permanently reduced overall work force.  Perhaps only 500 of the more than 2500 strikers would be required.  The unions’ hope lies in the possibility a National Labor Relations Board unfair labor practice ruling against the DNA would allow all (or most) strikers to regain their jobs.

At this writing, the second week in October, the strike remains very much alive and active, and potentially winnable, but facing grimmer prospects than expected at the outset.  How could things have come to such a pass in Detroit, the fortress of industrial unionism in the United States since the late 1930s?  What will it mean if major unions are in fact broken here?  And how might the strike still be won?

It didn’t have to be this way. When the strike began July 12, the six Metro Council unions—representing journalists, typesetters and graphic artists, handlers, truck drivers and deliverers—had forged an unprecedented unity, committing themselves to mutual solidarity and no separate deals or going back till all had settled.

The unions’ rank and file has been in a combative mood throughout.  A huge reservoir of community sympathy also exists for the strike—a factor recognized by some 200 advertisers who withdrew their business from the papers.

Community support has already taken two forms: a Labor/Community/ Religious Coalition in Support of Striking Newspaper Workers, which holds solidarity actions every Saturday evening and Readers United, which demonstrates Friday afternoons to demand that management bargain in good faith (and which supports the idea of a worker-community-run independent paper).  In addition there are Sunday afternoon pickets led by progressive clergy people at the suburban homes of the newspapers’ top executives and actions by WILD (Women Involved in Labor Disputes), whose core is composed of women strikers and the wives of strikers.

Religious leaders in the Detroit community condemned the papers’ recruitment of “replacement workers,” many from out of state, and angrily refused the DNA’s suggestion that they distribute scab papers.

Even the normally comatose International leadership of the United Auto Workers, understanding what’s at stake for their own future, gave the green light for UAW locals to lend much-needed support to mass weekly pickets attempting to block printing and distribution of the Sunday paper.  Numerous UAW and other union activists continue to turn out at the Saturday night pickets; locals are organizing fundraising dinners to benefit the strikers; in the auto plants where many workers normally bring in the newspaper to read on their breaks, few papers are to be found.

Why Typical Tactics Don’t Work

Tragically, as one striking member of The Newspaper Guild expressed it to me, “You go to these meetings with the union leaders at the Metro headquarters, it’s like they all think this is still 1952.”  Those were the days when a newspaper strike meant- -as in 1955 and 1968, for example the papers didn’t publish.

Today is more like 1932.  Management had never contemplated shutting down. The papers were organized militarily to confront a strike.  The planning, it turns out, began three years ago, when the DNA filed with the Justice Department a secret amendment to the Joint Operating Agreement, which would allow them to publish joint editions (as they do normally only on weekends and holidays) during a strike.

Planning every tactic in advance of the strike, management retained the services of the Vance professional strikebreaking firm, which brought in its cadre of heavily outfitted paramilitar goons from Colorado to drive the trucks, deliver the papers, police the grounds and retaliate against strikers and their families.  The wife of one striker reported a scab carrier for littering for delivering an unwanted scab paper; shortly thereafter the family’s front-yard mailbox was smashed to bits.

The unions, for their part, approached the strike in a generally business-as-usual manner, though admittedly with more than average energy.  The campaign to get advertisers to withdraw was organized efficiently and successfully, with resources supplied by the AFL-CIO and the International Teamster leadership; food banks were organized to assist strikers.

This was a good beginning, but not nearly enough.  By the time The Newspaper Guild, for example, purchased emergency health insurance for its members several weeks into the strike, close to half the journalists had crossed the line. Despite the shock of seeing friends and colleagues betray the strike, Guild members who have stayed out remain strong and committed.

Management, according to one source, expected a stream of journalists to return following the unions’ back-to-work proposal; this did not materialize.

That a segment of journalists have been the weak link in an otherwise strong union front isn’t too surprising, at a time when hundreds of reporters have been laid off from papers in New York, Hartford and Los Angeles.

Yet many of the first to cross were not the most vulnerable, but a number of highly paid columnists, who have considerable personal bargaining power; and sports writers, some of whom have lucrative radio work on the side—wannabe jocks who delight in bad-mouthing the union activities of “greedy” professional athletes.  In contrast, one young “Free Press” writer for the paper’s youth feature page told some fellow strikers on the picket line:

“I’d never cross, but I thought for a minute about what it would be like if I did. What if I called up some record store saying, I’m from the “Free Press” working on a story, and the person at the other end started asking me what I was doing being a scab?  How could any reporter do that?”

The Injunction and Confrontations

Sunday, October 1, 3:00 am, at the Clayton Street distribution center on Detroit’s southwest side: 200 or so pickets have massed to block the gates to trucks entering the facility with papers from the Sterling Heights printing plant.  As Detroit police escort a van carrying security goons and a truck through the slowly moving picket line, a flying wedge of Vance security men—- decked out in full-length shields and helmets—charges out of the plant gate and attacks the picketers from the rear. Full-scale hand-to-hand combat erupts for close to two minutes before picketers regroup and drive the goons back. Several picketers are injured, one requiring hospitalization with a head wound.  Police in riot gear then move in to split the picket line and allow the vehicles in.

* * *

Several days after the incident at Sterling Heights described at the beginning of this article, a notoriously reactionary Macomb County judge approved the newspapers’ request for an injunction barring mass picketing at the Sterling Heights printing plant.  (The same judge, Raymond Cashen, earlier ruled that a woman university student who places her child in day care surrender custody to her ex-husband, whose mother would stay at home with the child.)

The Metro Council union leadership, deciding not to organize mass defiance of the injunction—a grievous error that may prove fatal to the strike and the future of 2500 union members—moved the Saturday night picketing instead to selected distribution sites.

Picketers showed up there with the same combative energy.  Yet union officials supplied virtually no organization or leadership.  The result has been tactical incoherence on the line at crucial moments in the face of the employers’ paramilitary offensive and police complicity.

At the Clayton Street battle many of those present, including this reporter, felt that an all-out police riot was probably prevented only by the presence of Detroit City Council president Maryanne Mahaffey—an extraordinary political personality with a longtime civil rights activist record, who stayed all night observing the scene.

Several nights later, in fact, police at the same Clayton Street site stood by as a scab truck actually struck several picketers.  James Mikonczyk, a 21-year member of Mailers Local 2040, was in fair condition after surgery for a broken arm and leg. Police at the scene refused to call 911 for an ambulance and arrested picketers who attempted to follow the scab truck, which fled the scene—driven, it turned out, by a former Detroit cop.

Union leaders, feeling the Clayton Street site was too volatile, then moved the following Saturday night picketing to other distribution centers.  In any case, however, distribution center picketing can only delay distribution of the papers by a few hours—whereas mass picketing of the Sterling Heights printing plant might ultimately have stopped it.

The Issues

“We’re going to hire a whole new work force and go on without unions, or they can surrender unconditionally and salvage what they can.” —”Detroit News” publisher Robert Giles, quoted in the “St. Petersburg(Fla.) Times”, August 27.

“About fifteen years ago, when I first stuck my nose into the Free Press city room, there was an army of people reporting the news and a handful of decision-makers.  In the 1990s, reporters and photographers are overwhelmed by an army of suits who massage and package the news. New species of managers spawn every week, all with a single imperative: to meet. While union members are working to get news into the paper, in the bloated ranks of middle management the only mandate is to meet management goals.” —Striking “Free Press” reporter Michael Betzold, “Detroit Metro Times”, August 9.

In the view of many strikers and community supporters, the ultimate issue in this strike is a longstanding project of the newspapers’ management, under cover of their JOA, to liquidate one of the two papers and turn Detroit into a one-newspaper town.

The JOA, a corporate oligopoly which came into force in 1989 after years of bitter legal struggle waged by its opponents, merged the papers’ business operations and provided for their profits to be shared between Knight-Ridder and Gannett, respectively the parent corporations of the “Free Press” and the “News”.  This arrangement would continue even if one of the papers were folded.

In this perspective, it would appear that the DNA, in which the blatantly anti-union Gannett holds the majority vote, is indifferent to millions in short-term losses that the strike can inflict.

The strike began July 13, months after the old contracts expired, when the newspapers and DNA CEO Frank Vega (whose own brilliant corporate career includes a conviction for insider stock trading) announced that they would no longer honor the expired contracts’ terms.  Specific concessions demanded by management include:

* Substitution of merit-pay for contractual wage increases for reporters, a system obviously intended to promote favoritism and cronyism (Mike Betzold’s above-quoted observations help to put this in context).

* Unlimited subcontracting of maintenance work, at lower wages.

* Forcing Guild members to pay health insurance premiums.

* Eliminating over half of 3000 carrier jobs, and converting carriers to nonunion company employees.  (The carriers, currently “independent agents,” have been trying to form their own union.)

* Eliminating 80 mailers’ jobs (on top of the sixty-five slashed in the 1992 contract), replacing them with part-timers at half the pay with no benefits, and allowing unlimited contracting out.

* Elimination of work jurisdiction rules for printers and engravers, no pay or benefits increases to compensate for cuts in press operator jobs. (Since the JOA implementation in 1989, Detroit Typographical Union Local 18 has lost more than half its members.)

It is hardly difficult to understand workers’ resistance to these appalling takeaway demands.  Now they face permanent replacement and, if the strike is lost, many long-time skilled workers will be lucky to ever work again for more than $7 an hour.

The Prospects

The DNA’s claim that business is running normally can hardly be taken seriously.  A reporter for the suburban “Oakland Press” cites sources inside the printing plant who say the daily papers’ press run is just under 650,000, compared to over 900,000 before the strike.

Most advertisers continue to stay away, although the papers are selling space at huge discounts.  Many readers who canceled their subscriptions continue to get the unwanted scab paper dumped on their porch, sometimes in multiple copies.

The unions have also filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the publishers, the city of Sterling Heights and the police for the well-publicized cop brutality and the near-fatal tactics of the scab truck drivers.  The Sterling Heights city manager was forced to resign for allowing the DNA to pay over $600,000 in police overtime costs.  A police officer caught on camera stomping a picketer on the ground also quit under pressure.

In Detroit, police overtime costs for the first month of the strike came to nearly $180,000, a fact that has become a point of political contention in view of management intransigence.

A war of attrition, however, would appear to be one that the workers cannot expect to win. Two months into the strike, the papers were able to begin printing under separate mastheads, relying heavily on scab reporters imported from small-town papers and the non-union South as well as AP wire stories.  As the crucial, lucrative holiday season approaches, big retail advertisers are likely to come back if the strike’s momentum remains stalled.

Gannett and Knight-Ridder appear to have handed their managers a virtually unlimited budget, up to $200 million by some accounts, to break the strike and crush the unions.  Gannett in particular—only five of whose newspapers (including eighty-two dailies) nationwide are unionized—is motivated equally by corporate greed and ideology.  Its executives, at least as class conscious as the union leadership on the opposing side, fully understand what a blow they would strike for capital if they succeed in destroying unions in the heart of Detroit.  They already have their next targets picked out: Cleveland and Philadelphia.

The single most critical, unavoidable problem is the injunction against effective picketing at the main printing plant.  If the union leadership—which has given vague promises of breaking it, but in practice appears resigned to obeying it—refuses to mobilize mass defiance, the DNA will only be emboldened to get further injunctions covering distribution sites as well.

Without a powerful new initiative, Detroit newspaper workers are liable to face an extremely bitter winter.

David Finkel is an editor of “Against the Current” and a member of SOLIDARITY in Detroit.