Potrait of a Strikebreaker

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

Roger Horowitz

I’LL CALL HIM John, though I never got his name: A chance meeting on a van to the airport brought me face to face with one of legions of strikebreakers being used by the Gannett Company to break the Detroit newspaper strike.

Talkative and self-confident, John readily told me the story of how he was flying from Delaware to Detroit to help break the strike, along with Gannett employees from around the nation.

He was a management trainee for the “Wilmington News-Journal” and had worked in its circulation department.  Three days earlier, Gannett had informed John that he was to go to Detroit to coordinate distribution of the paper to paid subscribers.

Expect to be there for four weeks, John was told—and the possibility he might refuse was not contemplated.  To have done so, John explained, would cast doubts on his company loyalty and harm his career.

Management trainees like John are being summoned by Gannett to Detroit from all over America.  As John explained his personal situation, I could see why this group of employees made perfect fodder for strikebreaking.

John got his start in the company as a summer intern while in college.  Upon graduation he was assigned to the “News-Journal”, as the first of several stops learning skills at various Gannett papers.

The intent of this policy, John explained, was to make trainees loyal to Gannett, not to a particular paper.  Further advancement in the company depended on this willingness to move whenever Gannett felt he was needed.

For John, strikebreaking in Detroit was just another one of these assignments.  While he approached the job with no special relish, John felt it would be an asset to his career by expanding his range of contacts within the company.  He did not add what was obvious—that service in Gannett’s army of strikebreakers would certify complete company loyalty .

John proudly explained that his case was not exceptional.  Six other “News-Journal” employees were already in Detroit, along with dozens—perhaps hundreds—of similar young male management trainees from other Gannett papers.

John was replacing a strikebreaker who had been there for five weeks and was exhausted.  This rotation was typical.  Gannett had purchased furnished apartments to lodge strikebreakers, and issued each a car and cellular phone.

John would be rooming with an old college friend who worked on another Gannett paper.  His friend had warned John to expect hectic 18-hour days and little sleep.  Gannett had also warned John to avoid wearing clothing that marked him as an outsider.  Obtaining Michigan Wolverine sweatshirts, John hoped, would conceal his Delaware roots.

Maintaining Gannett’s Reputation

Simultaneously intrigued and appalled by this ambitious young man, I questioned John about Gannett’s strategy.  Why was the company spending so much money to break the strike?  Surely it would be cheaper to compromise with the unions than to maintain an army of strikebreakers.

John readily explained that wages were not the main issue.  Gannett wanted to reduce the work force of the Detroit papers, and to maintain its reputation as a hard-nosed employer.  He proudly credited Gannett with maintaining the largest non-union newspaper chain, unlike Knight-Ridder who tend to have unions in its papers.

Although John did not expand on this point, it was easy to fill in the blanks.  Sure, “downsizing” (fashionable doublespeak for layoffs) the Detroit work force was one objective.  But it seemed equally if not more important for Gannett to uphold its reputation as an anti-union employer, in preparation for anticipated conflicts with newspaper unions in other cities.

Finally I asked John how the company was faring in its strikebreaking efforts.  He claimed circulation to subscribers was up to eighty percent—a disturbingly low figure from his experiences in the “News-Journal” circulation department.

Failure to deliver the paper regularly to twenty percent of its subscribers was doubtless causing a cascade of complaints, loss of readership to suburban papers and—worst of all—weakening of advertisers’ loyalty.

He admitted that K-Mart had suspended advertising in the Detroit papers because it could get equivalent coverage by placing ads in other, less expensive publications—a dangerous sign that other advertisers might take their business elsewhere.  Advertising supplies 80 percent of the papers’ revenue.

It was hard to reconcile this affable young man with the picture he was presenting of himself as a narrow-minded careerist who had found strikebreaking was a fast track to advancement at Gannett.  But however he justified his actions, it was easy to see that John’s ambitions had made him a willing pawn in Gannett’s battle of Detroit.

As I left the van, I remarked to the driver that John had no idea of what he had gotten into. Perhaps Gannett also did not realize what it would encounter when it took on the Detroit newspaper unions, and their many supporters in the Detroit labor movement.

Roger Horowitz is a labor historian and a member of SOLIDARITY.