Detroit Newspaper Strike: A Bitter Winter

Against the Current, No. 61, March/April 1996

David Finkel

SIX-AND-A-half months into the Detroit newspaper strike, conventional wisdom tends to regard the battle between the six unions and the Detroit Newspaper Agency (DNA) as a bloody draw.

A reasonable enough assessment, but only with an essential caveat: Ultimately, a draw goes to the company.

That the Detroit News and Free Press are bleeding money is beyond doubt. The chairman of Knight-Ridder, the chain that owns the Free Press, concedes the two papers lost $92 million in 1995–he optimistically projects $50 million losses in 1996–not counting $112 million in profits anticipated for 1995-96 that will not be realized.

Figures published in the Detroit Sunday Journal (February 4, 1996), the weekly paper published by the striking unions, show that display advertising in the scab daily papers has dropped by half, classified ads by a third, and advertising down by 24-29% in the scab Sunday combined edition.

Combined daily circulation is down by half a million (roughly 45%) from 1989, when the two papers began their Joint Operating Agreement. Union photographers continue to uncover hundreds of bundles of undelivered scab papers dumped in abandoned lots.

Several mobilizations of a few hundred at the downtown Detroit newspaper buildings have resulted in arrests, including the police clubbing of a deaf striking printer who could not hear the cops shouting commands to move. One of these demonstrations was called by the striking unions to mark Martin Luther King day; another was staged by UAW retirees as a solidarity action.

Some strikers who initially regarded the Detroit police as a friendly force have been rudely awakened. The police, in fact, not only enable scabs to freely enter the newspaper buildings but refuse to intervene against scab violence–as when they failed to arrest a truck driver who struck and critically injured a picketer at the Clayton Street distribution center, and even refused to summon emergency medical assistance for the victim!

Strong community support continues to be manifest in various ways. Lawn signs forbidding delivery of scab papers are visible on almost every Detroit street; the Sunday Journal sells exceptionally well in auto plants wherever activists hawk it; union locals have hosted a number of well-attended strike relief benefits.

Readers United, a coalition of community activists and concerned clergy, is organizing a town meeting to be held in March about the strike and the future of the newspapers. The Committee for Repro>ductive Freedom, which organizes an annual celebration of the Roe v. Wade abortion rights anniversary, made this year’s event a fundraiser for reproductive health services for women strikers.

Hundreds of determined supporters and strikers in high spirits packed the Gaelic League hall on the near west side for a February 2 Irish Pub Night strike benefit, certainly demonstrating to any doubters that the strike remains a live struggle.

Kate de Smet, a striking Detroit News writer and a union “Road Warrior” travelling to other cities to build solidarity with the Detroit strike, told this writer at the February 2 event that “the national union movement is not willing to let this strike lose. The AFL-CIO understands the importance of Detroit and why we can’t afford a defeat here.”

True, I responded, but the AFL-CIO has already allowed defeats that they couldn’t afford, like Caterpillar . . . “That was the previous leadership,” de Smet replied, citing Rich Trumka in particular as bringing a stronger commitment from the new AFL-CIO team.

Passive Strike Can’t Win

An organizer brought in to Detroit to work on the strike estimates that perhaps a quarter of the 2000 still-striking union members are actively engaged in the strike, e.g. in the advertising boycott campaign. Plans for revitalized mass actions, as in the first two months of the strike, are said to be under consideration. Eddie Burke, the key United Mine Workers strategist in the Pittston strike, has been sent into Detroit.

The unions challenged the companies’ hiring of “permanent replacement workers.” They anticipate a favorable ruling from a National Labor Relations Board hearing by early March. But the papers have already stated they will drag out any pro-union NLRB ruling with years of appeals and assert that they will “remain loyal” to the new scab work force.

Despite the successes in cutting circulation and advertising, it is regrettably impossible to ignore the fact that the strike has lapsed into a largely passive phase. Mass picketing at the suburban Sterling Heights printing plant ended after a court injunction (as reported in ATC 59).

Another two months of Saturday night picketing at distribution centers, occasionally involving pitched battles with scab carriers and security goons and some destruction of company property, was abruptly canceled in November on union leaders’ orders–reportedly after police officials warned them that injunctions would otherwise be forthcoming.

Since then the scab papers are produced and distributed with no real hindrance, apart from sporadic disabling of coin boxes. In the absence of highly visible strike activity, the stock values of Knight-Ridder and Gannett (owner of the Detroit News) have largely held despite the enormous operating losses the strike has caused.

Obviously, no strike can ignore the power of the courts and the state; yet strikes cannot possibly win if its entire strategy is dictated by, and subordinated to, legal constraints.

New Tactics Needed

In response to this situation a small rank-and-file formation within the striking unions, called the Unity Victory Caucus, has come together to call for a return to mass action and creative militancy. The UVC, as emphasized by striking Free Press photographer Daymon Hartley, is not seeking to challenge for power but holds “tactical differences with our leadership.” The caucus has held well-attended meetings but hasn’t achieved the strength that would be needed for any major initiative.

Most discouraging to many supporters, perhaps, is the official stranglehold clamped on strike activism. Cheryl Buswell-Robinson, who has long experience as a UAW and health worker activist and who served until peremptorily dismissed as volunteer coordinator of the union-organized labor/community/religious strike support coalition for the newspaper strike, feels this especially acutely:

“Not only is the Metro Council union leadership poorly organized, which hamstrung many of our efforts, but everything is absolutely controlled, right down to detailed scripts for the speakers’ bureau. How can strikers without public speaking experience reach people if they can’t speak from the heart in their own words? Nobody wants to hear a canned speech written by the union . . . .”

The strike remains viable, and winnable–but only with some major strategic reversals. The bloody draw can continue indefinitely; the trouble is that, so long as they can publish a scab product, the companies’ store of blood is essentially unlimited.

ATC 61, March-April 1996