Mobilize for Action! Motown

Against the Current, No. 68, May/June 1997

The Editors

ALMOST TWO YEARS after the Detroit newspaper strike began, the AFL-CIO has called for a two-day Action! Motown `97 on June 20-21.  Will it change the balance of power in Detroit’s newspaper labor war?  Probably not. But even if all it can do is turn out thousands of unionists, students and community activists to stand in solidarity with the 2,000 strikers-now locked-out workers-and their families and community supporters, it will be significant.

For almost two years there has been a battle in the streets and of Detroit and its suburbs.  In its arrogance the Detroit Newspaper Agency (DNA) misestimated the determination of the workers it forced out on strike and the high level of community support.  So far the newspapers have admitted to operating losses and lost profits of $300 million, forty percent of their subscribers and a third of their advertisers.

Without a doubt, the struggle to regain the workers’ jobs and union contracts continues.  But there is no point in hiding the fact that the fight is now being waged under more difficult conditions: The strike couldn’t be won by routine methods, as the union leaderships conceded when they offered (largely without consulting the membership) an unconditional return to work. The DNA “accepted” but indicated it wouldn’t let the scabs go; it would call back strikers as openings “developed.”

The strike was hobbled, not by the strikers-who have given as much as any rank and file can give to this struggle-but through the astonishing lack of preparation and strategic thinking by their union leaders.  It wasn’t even that these leaders were afraid of a serious confrontation; “they never imagined it would happen.

If the local union leadership took their members out on strike two years ago without knowing they were going to war, they have now ended the strike without realizing that the war is still on. Way behind the curve at every single stage of the struggle, they weren’t prepared to let the public know that the boycott of the papers remains in effect.

The course of events in Detroit must also be recognized as a huge setback for the new leadership of the AFL-CIO-its professional spin doctors to the contrary withstanding-and an indictment of its rhetorical bluster.  The fact is that the Sweeney leadership stonewalled for months in the face of mounting pressure from below for a “Solidarity Day III” action in Detroit, only to approve it after the striking locals and the International unions made the offer to return.

True, if it were simply a matter of money the AFL-CIO’s level of support for this strike would receive a good rating.  But this struggle can’t be won by the federation’s financial backing alone (any more than the right-wing thrust of bourgeois politics can be stopped by labor’s political spending).  In order to have effectively planned for a fight against the corporations, the unions would have had to create a political crisis in Detroit-and aggressively targeted key Gannett and Knight-Ridder papers in other cities.

But that requires a level of commitment at the official levels of the AFL-CIO over strategy, militancy and cooperation that does not exist.  Nor will it come about until pressure from the base forces the U.S. labor movement to become a genuine civil rights movement for working people, with all that implies in terms of willingness to defy unjust laws, fill up jails and turn established order upside down.

It’s not as if there weren’t ample warning.  Gannett and Knight-Ridder, the two corporations that in 1989 tied together their Detroit newspapers, the “Detroit News” and “Detroit Free Press” respectively, through their Joint Operating Agreement (JOA), are determined to restructure their business, setting a standard of leanness throughout the industry.  If they can establish it in what was once a union bastion, they’re miles ahead.

In 1992, the last contract bargaining round, the companies forced the unions to take major concessions.  The DNA asked their employees, represented by six different unions, for givebacks in order to make the company profitable.  The unions went along with management’s request.

In fact more than 500 jobs had been eliminated since the JOA went into effect: The Teamsters who represent the circulation managers, trucker drivers and customer service workers have given up 300 jobs. Mailers, who are also Teamsters, gave up 65 full-time jobs. The Graphic Communication workers, who install printing plates and operate the presses gave up 73 full-time positions, while engravers who operate the cameras that make color separations and printing plates gave up 12 jobs, representing a third of its membership.

The DNA promised that when they started making a profit, workers would be given raises.  But what corporation, having gotten one round of concessions, fails to demand even more the next time?  The company planned to contract out some of the work, forcing others to lose their benefits and become part-timers.  For the rest, the DNA proposed a totally arbitrary merit-pay program that would basically have rewarded “favorites” and weeded out over time the more independent-minded workers.

Management triggered the strike when Gannett’s “Detroit News” unilaterally imposed merit pay on the Newspaper Guild and refused to honor the terms of the old contract.  The Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions, representing the unions in joint negotiations, took their membership out on strike-but with next to no preparation.  After being out a couple of weeks strikers realized what a battle they had ahead of them. A weak link in the strike’s armor was exposed when nearly fifty percent of the Newspaper Guild unit crossed the picket lines.

Beginning a strike in the `90s without much preparation is like tying one hand behind one’s back before the fight begins.  Yet despite that handicap, during these first few weeks the number of people picketing on Saturday night at the North Plant, the main printing facility in suburban Sterling Heights, kept growing.  The joint Sunday edition is the largest and most important paper of the week, so disrupting its production and distribution is key to bringing the power of the union and its supporters to bear on the corporation.  Through word of mouth and e-mail, strikers and their families joined with people from other unions in the area and community activists.  By Labor Day weekend, 5,000 stood guard at the North Plant.

Sterling Heights police used pepper gas against the picketers and charged the picket lines.  Some were arrested and beaten up-but the picketing continued throughout the night.  Trucks finally got through the next morning, six to eight hours late. No one had their Sunday paper with their morning coffee that week!

The next weekend the company rented a helicopter to airlift the papers-a rather expensive and inefficient way to get papers out. Picketers kept the lines up at the plant and the media recorded a scene that reminded everyone around of Vietnam.

The following week the DNA got an injunction limiting the number of people per gate. Just a few years before, Pittston strikers successfully defied an injunction and even briefly occupied their mine. When they won, getting the court-imposed fines dismissed was part of the settlement.  They used their legal team to help their figure out how to accomplish what needed to be done.

But in the Detroit newspaper strike, the union leadership ordered the strikers to comply with the terms of the injunction.  It was as if the Metropolitan Council had allowed their legal team to dictate the course of action.  No doubt Union leaders were afraid the unions’ treasuries would be seized, that they themselves would be sued and might lose their homes.  But even more than that, accepting the terms of the injunction gave them a cover for their failure to think through what needed to be done.

From that point on the writing was on the wall: the unions will limit themselves to what is considered “acceptable.”  Yet the strike didn’t collapse at that point, primarily due to the determination of the strikers and the community that supported them.

The open brutality of the Sterling Heights police is sharply contrasted by many strikers with the relatively restrained conduct of the Detroit cops. Yet without overt brutality, the Detroit police always cleared the way for scabs to proceed through the pickets.  Worse, they stood passively by-when heavily armed Vance security guards at the Clayton Street distribution center charged into a picket line in the early hours of October 1, 1995, and several nights later, at the same site, when a scab truck ran over and seriously injured a picket and drove away.

Striking workers picketed the newspaper offices and plants, staffed the food bank and the clothes exchange, and passed out informational leaflets in front of businesses still advertising.  They organized a speakers bureau and got out “No Scab Papers” bumper stickers and lawn signs.  They designed and sold T-shirts and posters.

Strikers confronted management at trade shows, picketed management at their homes and dogged members of both Gannett and Knight-Ridder’s board of directors.  They explained their struggle to community organizations, unions and church groups.  They demonstrated with supporters in other cities in front of local newspapers also owned by the same corporations; they focused on boycotting the Gannett-owned USA Today.

At the insistence of the strikers, the unions created an alternative paper, the weekly “Detroit Sunday Journal”.  It is sold by strikers and supporters all over town, is available in many stores, more than 10,000 subscribers receive the paper by mail. The “Journal” was a hugely important initiative; it is tragic that it wasn’t in place from the very first day of the strike.

In the Detroit area more than 200,000 people canceled their newspaper subscriptions.  In fact the rate of cancellation in working-class neighborhoods stood between 40-55%.  Advertisers pulled out and even the anti-union Hudson department stores, cut back on their ads in the scab papers-it didn’t bring as much bang for the buck anymore.

What amazed the strikers was the level of community support.  From the beginning days of the strike other trade unionists and community members joined in the picketing.  But in the spring of 1996 strike supporters attempted to put the spotlight back on the strike through weekly demonstrations in which supporters sat down in front of the newspaper offices.  More than 300 were arrested.

Despite all the strike activity generated, however, the problem remained: Given the limitation the striking unions agreed to impose, the 2,000 strikers were unable to place enough pressure upon the corporation in order to win. As early as the fall of 1995 a core of strikers, organized as a Unity/Victory Caucus, proposed relaunching mass picketing at the North Plant and called for a national march in Detroit.  However they were not a large enough grouping, and faced too much baiting by the official leadership, to be able to the reverse the process.

During the winter of 1996-97 word leaked out that some of the union officials wanted to make an unconditional offer of return to work. But after the November elections were over, a group of strikers and supporters campaigned the AFL-CIO for a national mobilization in Detroit.  The Metropolitan Council agreed to put out the call, and six strikers prepared to attend the February AFL-CIO council meeting in Los Angeles.

A week before the meeting opened, the unions moved to made their unconditional offer (in only one out of the six unions, the Guild, did members even have the right to vote on the offer).  Just before the AFL-CIO meeting convened the DNA responded by “accepting” the offer.

Two months later fewer than 100 strikers are back at work. For the majority, it is now a lockout.  The unions are attempting to get a 10(j) injunction, forcing the DNA to take back all the workers.  Perhaps the National Labor Relations Board will issue such a ruling before the summer.  The legal strategy continues.

The DNA seems to have overplayed its cards.  Mayor Dennis Archer and other public officials and religious leaders, including the Detroit City Council, have called for the newspapers to immediately return to work all the strikers.

The locked-out workers maintain that until everyone (including more than 200 who have received termination letters from the company since the strike began) is back at work and there is a contract the strike is not over. They chant, “No justice, no peace” in front of the newspapers’ offices, they produce and distribute the “Journal”, they are expanding the boycott against “USA Today”.  They are organizing a corporate campaign that includes visiting members of the Knight-Ridder and Gannett board of directors at their offices, homes, even at their country clubs.  They show up at the newspaper offices each week when yet another group returns to work, shouting encouragement to those going inside.  Those who go inside proudly wear their union buttons or black armbands with the names of those who have passed away since the strike began.

These strikers have not given up despite the odds against them. They fight on because they’ve become convinced it’s important to stand on principles, that human values come before profits.  So be sure to organize yourselves, your co- workers and your friends to come to Motown June 20-21.  You’ll get a chance to meet some fine people.  At the very least we must show the corporations how costly the battles are becoming, and we must demonstrate to each other what solidarity means.  So come to Detroit June 20-21! Action! Motown ’97.

ATC 68, May-June 1997