Detroit Newspaper Unions’ Year of War

Against the Current, No. 63, July/August 1996

interview with Rebecca Cook

THE PAST TWO months have seen the Detroit newspaper strike enter a more active phase. While not able to stop production of the scab Detroit News and Free Press, the six striking unions have undertaken more aggressive picketing and some creative street actions, as well as maintaining a strong advertiser and subscriber boycott. For example, as of June, a total of 1,395 advertisers had boycotted the newspapers for more than thirty days, the highest number since early in the strike. About 700 advertisers still place their ads in the scab papers.

Community support was mobilized over the winter and spring in weekly civil disobedience actions organized by Readers United, an activist committee with religious and community roots, in which 300 church, union and political figures submitted to arrest for peacefully blockading newspaper building entrances.

The outlook in this war of attrition continues to be uncertain as the strike’s one-year anniversary approaches. Against the Current interviewed Rebecca Cook, a striking Detroit News photographer with five years seniority before the strike began, who has been a picket line activist throughout the struggle. She spoke with David Finkel of the ATC editorial board.

Against the Current: After close to eleven months on strike (the walkout began July 13, 1995), can you give an overview of where you see the strengths and weaknesses of each side–the papers and the unions?

Rebecca Cook: What I’ve noticed lately is that the people still on strike are the very best that were n this business. They are dug in. After having survived this many months, which nobody thought we could do, they are prepared to continue, and finding strength they never had before.

It’s not just my own union, the Newspaper Guild, but Teamsters and Mailers too. People have not only found little jobs to survive, but also help each other out. People are forming small networks of solidarity, on their own more than through official union channels.

From the very beginning, for example, some of us have gotten together on Wednesday nights for beer and morale-boosting sessions. And we’ve always been alert to spot if anyone is having problems or starting to “crack,” so we can shore them up.

The other unions are structured a little differently than the Guild. They were tighter to begin with, and many of these guys worked together for 35 years. With our Guild members, we had many people who hadn’t been there very long–the newspaper business today is a transient one–and for many it was their first time on strike or anything of the sort.

A weakness the DNA (Detroit Newspaper Agency, the joint publisher of the struck papers–ed.) has, from what we understand and can document, is a huge turnover in the scab work force, particularly at the North plant (the printing facility). We call them 89-day scabs, they can’t make it as permanent hires.

As far as reporters, they hired people who can’t find Woodward Avenue or don’t know who (former long-time Mayor) Coleman Young is. We know these are people who just can’t keep up. Most of them are very young–which of course is sad to see.

Another weakness on their side is that we have come across many people in the community–from suits to street people–who are so angry at the papers that it must have been building up for years before the strike even happened. They have lost readership they will never get back.

At one of the demonstrations, I heard some guy I never met say: Those people running these papers must think we’re stupid. I went up and told him yes, I work there and I can tell you they think we’re all stupid.

There’s an independent auditing agency ABC, which verifies newspaper circulation figures so that advertisers will know how many people they reach–but the newspapers are refusing to release those numbers. We are confident they’ve lost 50% of paid circulation. We know all about the freebies–places where we find them dropping off papers just to pass out.

You hear radio ads for the newspapers, trying to bring back readers. They didn’t do that before–they’d never do that if they hasn’t lost so many.

ATC: What do you feel are the weaknesses on the strikers’ side?

RC: I think the weaknesses we have come essentially from being up against one of the world’s largest media conglomerates, which is probably spending more money than anyone else in trying to break its unions.

The average striker never understood what to expect. Many of them believed in the American Dream, where you would work hard and be rewarded. I’d call it an eye-opener more than a weakness on our side.

ATC: The strike appears to have entered a more active phase this spring, hasn’t it?

RC: We made it through the brutal cold weather. There’s no question now that the unions in this town, including the UAW and AFL, have taken the newspaper strike into the streets. This includes demonstrations and civil disobedience. That’s the only way to move forward–making the company very much aware that we’re still here.

The most recent actions have done just that. Most important are groups of strikers engaging in legal activities such as going into the neighborhoods to leaflet and picket replacement workers or the homes of prominent scabs and executives.

There’s also marches with minor disruptions like sitdowns in street intersections for a few minutes, and stepping up picketing and demonstrations in front of the News and Free Press. We’re bringing down Teamster mailers to the buildings so that scabs know they’re not just crossing a Guild picket line.

There was a little incident on a recent Sunday when the News tried what they thought would be a demoralizing tactic. About 50 Guild members received letters from Bob Giles (the publisher) telling them their personal belongings inside the building had been packed up for them to collect.

People didn’t know what to expect, whether they would be escorted alone by armed Vance security goons through the building. So we had a small solidarity picket there as people showed up, and a Guild rep to go inside with people.

As it turned out, boxes with people’s names were lined up in the garage for them to collect. It was kind of funny too, because some of the things were in the wrong boxes…I wouldn’t go in there myself. But because of the way we handled it, what was supposed to be intimidating turned out not to be a big deal.

The company continuously lied to people on the inside, telling them the strike is over, to keep them pumped up. Every time they see us demonstrating they call another meeting inside. We know of cases of people cracking up under the strain in there. Long-time editors are getting jobs elsewhere. The good people who can leave are leaving.

I think that putting out such a mediocre product this long shows, sad but true, that management doesn’t care at all about the product, but only about profits and mega-profits.  How long are they prepared to carry on? I couldn’t even guess. They can end the strike anytime they want to seriously deal; they own the printing plants, the ink and the paper.

ATC: How about the impact of the Readers United weekly civil disobedience actions? Given the obvious fact that a community support group cannot, itself, change the basic configuration of forces or determine the outcome of the strike, it did affect public perception. What did the striking workers think of it?

RC: All the strikers I spoke with saw Readers United’s campaign as a huge uplift. They were grateful, first, that these people even cared to come down and get arrested on their behalf. Many were even surprised to see this kind of support.

The Readers United demonstrations were young and old, racially diverse, unionists, health care workers, veterans. (Each week a specific group, usually around two dozen, would be arrested–ed.) They made a huge statement that the strikers weren’t out here all on their own.

ATC: Within the striking unions some of the activists have formed a caucus, the Unity Victory Caucus, whose proposals include a return to militant picketing at the North plant (Sterling Heights, site of some notorious confrontations early in the strike before mass picketing was banned by court injunction). Do you have any thoughts about their ideas?*

RC: I’m not a member of UVC. I agree with some of the things they say. But the most important thing now is to make sure we are not divided.

As far as stopping production, one thing everybody needs to understand: You could bring 10,000 people to the North plant, but they’d better be prepared to sit there for a year. This isn’t 1952.

ATC: What’s the impact of the Sunday Journal, the weekly paper of the striking newspaper unions?

RC: None of us imagined how successful the Journal would be. Everybody working on it is doing some of their best work–the Guild members who are writing and editing; two Teamster mailers I know who have become ad salesmen, who never considered something like that before. Many times our hawkers are outselling the scab Sunday paper.

We’ve broken stories the scab papers couldn’t even touch. The mob arrest story, for example, we had broken months before the scab papers even caught on. Another big story was the Tobias murder case. [This is a case in northern lower Michigan, where two men have spent seven years of life sentences until their highly dubious convictions were recently overturned–ed.]

Norman Sinclair worked on this story for the Detroit News for years after these guys had been all but forgotten. The day they were brought from prison up in Gaylord (to be released on bond pending the new trial), Norman and I were there to do the story for the Journal. Also up there were a scab reporter and photographer.

Now, at the very end of that day they were granted a new trial and bond. You can imagine the scene: These men had been in prison seven years, their families were there…The scab reporter went over to speak with them and these guys, just out of prison, said: We won’t speak to you. We are only speaking to Norman.

I just couldn’t believe it. So the scab reporter just had to crib quotes from the TV coverage!

We have people calling us all the time with story ideas. Somebody in Japan sent us $50 for a three-month subscription.

ATC: In the bigger picture, what does this strike mean in the context of other newspapers around the country?

RC: We know that many of them are watching us to see what happens. Where contracts are coming up it puts fear into a lot of workers’ hearts. Furthermore, in a lot of places Knight-Ridder (the chain that owns the Free Press) is cutting back. We believe it’s because of the losses incurred in this strike.

Many replacement workers come from other Knight-Ridder and Gannett (owners of the Detroit News) papers, small papers.

Many of our strikers who were interviewed for jobs in other cities were asked whether they had crossed the picket line, and were told: We’re glad you didn’t.

This is a make-or-break strike in terms of newspaper journalism: who’s going to be hired, what’s going to be the news and how it’s reported. The most distressing part, as I said, is seeing how young many of these scabs are.

We are also seeing among the scabs people who we know tried before to get jobs at the Detroit papers, and couldn’t get hired–some because of discrimination, some just because they’re third-rate. Some of the scabs have no background in journalism: One editorial assistant at the News, for example, was a customs agent. Some people still in college are brought in.

One of the scab photographers, the Detroit News photo intern is this kid, 23 years old, who was called “the college photographer of the year.” He was brought in from Louisville. At one of our demonstrations I saw this kid with a long lens, photographing the strikers, many of them twice his age, like a little Nazi turning in his parents.

He’s getting paid one of the best intern salaries in the country, thanks to union contracts–living off what the unions won.

I saw this kid coming out of the building one day and followed him to the parking lot, calling him everything you can imagine. Finally he turned around shaking and said, “you wait and see where I wind up working.” I told him, “it doesn’t matter where you work, you’ll always be a scab.”

ATC: So, can you give an estimate as to whether this strike will last another year?

RC: I couldn’t even guess. I don’t know how many millions more the DNA is prepared to lose. But this is definitely their big stand in America, in terms of how working people are going to be treated.

ATC: What about the idea that’s been mentioned of calling for a national or maybe regional labor march on Detroit for the newspaper strike?

RC: A lot of people won’t talk a lot about a national march, because, if you set up that kind of thing, you have to set it up to succeed. So we’ll have to see what develops.

The company has filed RICO (racketeering) suits against all the unions and against individuals, both striking and non-striking unions. So when the unions plan something it has to be done correctly, it can’t be haphazard.

ATC: Striking workers and supporters have confronted Knight-Ridder and Gannett management at shareholder meetings. What can you share with us from your own experience with that?

RC: I went on the bus to D.C. to the Gannett shareholders’ meeting. I think about 40 strikers piled into a rented Greyhound bus, drove all night. Many of our strikers went inside the meeting. We think Gannett had tried to fill the meeting room with office tower workers, but we were there first.

About 400 supporters from other unions were also demonstrating support outside that day. A lot of media who wouldn’t normally be there showed up.

Many of the strikers tried to speak from the floor. A daughter of one striker tried to address Rosalyn Carter, who sits on the Gannett board, about why she works to address child poverty in the Third World while participating in a corporation that’s pushing families into poverty here.

We have a company that’s like an out-of-town landlord, that doesn’t care in any way about the community it affects.

Look at the way it uses the race card, and the gender card, saying now that the unions are on strike “we can hire women and minorities.” That’s such a fraud. The union never did the hiring. It was this company that never hired minorities and women.

Now they’re being hired for the lower-level jobs, to be used as union-busting pawns and discarded afterwards. The strikers who have left Detroit for new jobs are resources that will never come back.

Then there’s the police and goon brutality. A striking mailer named Vito Scioto was beaten up by Vance guards (this occurred in the violent confrontation at the Clayton street distribution center, reported in ATC 59–ed.) He suffered permanent brain damage, has had horrible operations, and will never work again.

They’re replacing workers who have been at the company for longer than these scabbing kids have been alive. Perhaps that’s the most despicable thing they’ve done–not just dividing our community but polarizing the industry.

*The UVC proposes a three-pronged strategy for winning the strike: the existing advertiser boycott, the Detroit Sunday Journal, the paper of the striking newspaper unions, and returning to mass picketing to stop production and distribution of the scab papers. It presents its proposals as representing tactical differences with the unions’ leadership, stating that it is not an opposition group.

ATC 63, July-August 1996