How Our Lives Have Been Changed

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

an interview with Kate DeSmet

KATE DeSMET IS a locked-out and fired Detroit News writer.  At the time of the strike she was the paper’s higher education writer and was formerly the religion writer.  She has been a leading strike activist and an organizer of both ACOSS and Shut Down Motown `97.  She was interviewed by phone by Dianne Feeley and David Finkel of the “ATC” editorial board.

ATC: We’re hoping you can talk about how people’s lives and outlooks have changed in this strike.  Can you explain how the strikers have been able to hold out so long?  And what has been the high point, for you, in this struggle?

KATE DeSMET: There have been so many high points, I don’t think I could choose just one. You’re right, Dianne, in a lot of respects people think these twenty months must have been pure hell. I almost feel guilty explaining how exhilarating it can be.

One high point for me was in November 1995.  Some of us were on the West Coast doing some speaking engagements on the strike, and were invited to come to Seattle for a gathering of Boeing workers who had been on strike for about a month at that time.

We marched along a street in Everett, Washington, holding signs from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild.  Somebody came up to me-not knowing I was a striker from Detroit-and said, “I’m sorry to hear what’s happened in Detroit.”

I asked what he meant, and he said: “The strike is over.”  I said, Oh my God. It was a quote from the company, which the “New York Times” cited as gospel.  It made me so angry, being three thousand miles from home and finding that this was what people were hearing about my strike.

When we got to the stadium where all the Boeing strikers were going to be, I was told I could have one minute to speak to the crowd.  Well, I was a little miffed about flying 3000 miles to speak for one minute; but one of the Guild guys said, “Take as much time as you need.”

The whole new AFL-CIO leadership team, Sweeney, Trumka and Chavez-Thompson, who had just been elected, were there-quite a moment for someone who was quite shy for most of my life, and spent most of my time behind a notebook, a professional observer.  Now I was in the middle of it.

I began talking about that story in the “New York Times”, and it gave me a kind of theme, which I was to use for a long time in my speaking: “They may say the strike is over. The papers may say the strike is over, the company executives may say it’s over. But we workers are the ones who called it and we’ll be the ones who determine when to pack it up. This strike ain’t over until “we say it’s over.”

At that moment the Boeing strikers just went nuts. They’d been listening to a bunch of boring political speeches.  Now they were shouting and stomping, and I felt myself on fire up there.  I led them in our union chant and it was just an incredible moment.

It made such an emotional connection for me with those strikers, thousands of miles away from my own strike but in the same position I was.

Many newspaper strikers have gone back to school, gotten retrained to do different things, and in the process gained more self-esteem.  Many of them had felt there was no place else to work except at the “mother ship,” the “Detroit News” or “Free Press,” that they had no other capability of making a living.

Now you find people have gone into teaching, or writing, one guy has opened up his own successful construction business.  Some folks have gone into other work places and learned what it was like to be a worker in another way. That experience shows you that you’re not alone and that your struggle with the newspaper isn’t an isolated one.

Coming out of this strike there will be many more workers in the field of justice, who will never stop seeking justice for other working people, whether they are professional organizers or just organizing at their own work place.

I remember speaking with a former “Detroit News” reporter who had moved to Los Angeles and now worked at the “LA Times”.  She was describing the very grim working conditions there-a whole caste system of payment, from the “stars” to the beat reporters down to the bottom rungs, who are contract workers without benefits and are out of there when their contracts are up.

It’s a very crappy system because it’s non-union and they can get away with it. She’s one of the only people in her office who talks to the contract worker layer, who really empathizes with them because of what she’s been through.

I think that’s going to happen to a lot of these workers wherever they end up. Another worker, a striking Teamster, took a job with a non-union truck driving place.  He didn’t identify himself as a striker, but when Teamster organizers showed up outside the place he signed a card and began talking to other drivers about joining the union.

That’s going to multiply.  People have been changed in ways they don’t even know yet.

ATC: Were you strongly involved in the union before the strike?

KDeS: I was an officer for eleven years and attended some conventions as a delegate.  I was on the bargaining committee part-time.  But I saw myself as somebody who would help a worker in the office if he or she was in trouble, more than as a union official.

The company hated the union so much that if we could help a worker before we got to the grievance and arbitration channel we felt we would be accomplishing more. I would talk to someone’s editor and try to get them a break, but I wasn’t out there a lot in an official capacity.

I went to all the representative assemblies (local Guild meetings), but I had no contact with any of the other unions-none of us did. In previous contract years I remember getting mad at the pressmen or the Teamsters, there was some bad blood there.  But I also recognized that the Guild had very little power; we could be easily replaced and we couldn’t stop production by just walking out ourselves.

I wasn’t interested in union power, I just wanted journalism to be good. I had dreams about walking into the “Detroit News,” announcing that management was all canned and that we were going to do journalism the way we could.

By the time we walked out the journalism was getting so bad it was like a sausage factory.  Being able to talk it about publicly was like a weight off my shoulders.

There was a dumbing-down of the stories, and we were micromanaged so that even the smallest article had someone dumbing it down. I’ll give a concrete example or two.

Gannett instituted a corporate program in which each reporter had to make sure we had a “minority voice” in each story.  That sounds like good policy, but the way Gannett implemented it was that you had to quote somebody just to quote them, instead of having a reason for having them in your story.

You couldn’t actually identify someone as, say, “an African-American pilot” in a story on airline hiring, for example, where it was relevant.  But for a story on apples, written by a food writer, the editor shot it back saying “you have to get a minority in here.”  She had to call a minority person she knew, who had a cable TV show on food, but couldn’t tell him that the only reason was that he was a “minority.”

I did a story on gays in the military, on deadline, with two hours for research and interviews and writing.  My editor, believe it or not, told me to call a VFW hall and just find someone who was a minority.  I was given about ten minutes.

Why?  The editor whose reporters followed this rule the closest wins a corporate bonus.  My publisher won extra money in bonuses for how many minorities appeared in Detroit News stories, without being identified.

But get this: A women “wasn’t” considered a minority in your story-not even, in the example I was just giving, a woman veteran who was gay, a “real” minority! An Arab American didn’t count because the company recognized only official EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) classifications.  This wasn’t about fair play-it was about corporate bonuses.  We all struggled with the issue of integrity.

A particularly bad case, for me, was a story of a young girl on life support in hopeless condition after a very bad car crash in Tennessee.  The family and doctors decided to remove her heart, which was packed it ice and flown to Michigan to put in her father, who needed a heart transplant.

This wasn’t public, but we got a call from someone who knew about it. One morning the city desk told me to follow up on this tip. They gave me a list of phone numbers.  I made calls and practically had the phone slammed down in my ear. The family was grieving for their sister who had died, the father was still in the hospital, and the hospital made it absolutely clear the family didn’t want to talk.

The desk told me to keep trying.  For the next few days I would hesitantly pick up that phone-I didn’t want to do it. The previous year I had spent time at Stanford University and got some chaplain training; I knew what that family went through.

Finally I went to the city desk and said the family didn’t want to talk with us. An editor sat me down and told me they were furious at me for not aggressively following up this story, and they did not want to get beat on the story.

I was told that the chief editor in the newsroom wanted me to stake out the house.  I said I was refusing the assignment.  They had somebody else pick up the story.  Then it broke in some suburban paper and they were furious.

In my year review, the day before we walked out, they wrote that I had “betrayed” the “Detroit News” by my behavior, that I wasn’t to be trusted, that I had withheld the names and numbers of the family and all the contacts-the ones “they” had given to “me”! So I got a zero percent merit increase, after all the times I had saved their ass on stories.

They knew I was a union activist because there was union stuff all over my desk. Of course, I’ve since been fired three different times, for ridiculous reasons (strike activity-ed.).

ATC: Were the unions surprised by the level of the DNA’s commitment to publish scab papers?

KDeS: I think we were all surprised by the level of violence, fraud and deceit the DNA was willing to use to maintain business as usual.  When they violated their own Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) by publishing a joint edition the first fifty-four days of the strike [the legal terms of the JOA allow joint editions on weekends and holidays only-ed.], we were so angry.

But we soon realized it wasn’t going to be a question of stopping production.  In San Francisco, in an eleven-day struggle they didn’t stop production.  And in New York (the Daily News strike) there was enormous violence, on both sides-the guys with the newsstands were scared to take the paper.  But that’s not the way papers are distributed in Detroit.

I’m not sure we could ever have stopped production-for a few days maybe, but they have satellite production and helicopters .  .  .  but we did have to stop distribution, and we weren’t prepared for that, especially in such a sprawling suburban market.

ATC: Why were the reporters the weak link in the strike?

KDeS: It goes back to what I was saying about the “mother ship.”  A lot of them imagined they would never get another job, especially in a shrinking market for journalists, especially if you want to live in your home town and with your family.

A lot of people also have the ego attachment to seeing their byline every day, they couldn’t go day-to-day without that identity.  That doesn’t say much for their self-esteem but that’s the way it is.

Another group were those who always had trouble inside the building, whom the union rescued time and time again.  Our theory was that they identify with their abuser, and they had to run back to the abuser.

Then there was a whole group who received threatening letters or phone calls from management.  Some panicked and went back in. I mentioned that when I testified at a congressional hearing this past week. None of the other craft unions got these calls, just the newsroom.

ATC: Did you expect the level of community support you’ve received, with people canceling their subscriptions and so forth?

KDeS: Yes, I did expect that because I was born and raised here and I knew we had that sense about ourselves.  I’ve said many times in speeches that Detroit is home to the international headquarters of the Big Three automakers but we’re a union town, not a company town.

My father was one of the sitdown strikers in 1937, at Jefferson Assembly, right after Flint.  I came up in a home where union struggles, civil rights, the war in Vietnam were all concerns.  I’m more shocked by those who don’t take the union side, and I know there are even union members who just don’t get it.

But I’ve encountered so many people who will do things just because they know we’re on strike-somebody left a supply of cat food at my house, or someone pops for your breakfast at a diner.  Someone I knew from the time I was a religion writer-I did a story on his group-called up recently and told me, “I just wanted to let you know how proud I am of you.”

God bless every single one of the people of UAW Local 160, including my next door neighbor who’s in poor health but keeps up with every issue of the Detroit Sunday Journal.  It’s very heartening to know here are such incredible people in your community.

ATC: Can you say something about the role of the Sunday Journal (the weekly paper published by the striking unions)?  We’ve found that it’s a way of reaching people in the plants on a weekly basis.

KDeS: It’s important on many levels.  One is that it’s given many people, both in production and newsroom, a workplace when they were on strike and feeling desperate.  That’s important for morale.

It’s also played the role of bringing some information to the community that wasn’t getting out elsewhere.  Maybe that’s the biggest role, when we’re locked out from the communications media in town as well as by our employer.

In fact that’s true of any kind of coverage of labor.  It’s come home to us as journalists what we’ve been doing to labor all these years; we see our own sins more clearly.

It’s great to see people who aren’t strikers, who work at Solidarity House or Wayne State University, hawking the paper every week on street corners.

ATC: Was ACOSS (Alliance of Concerned Strikers and Supporters) formed in order to take more direct control of strike activism?

KDeS: We were worried on the first anniversary of the strike that things were getting stale, to a point where there wasn’t life in the strike.  I didn’t see that as the fault of the rank and file; but I felt that if we didn’t get more involved and pro-active in our own strike it was going to be dead and done.

I had committed myself to not taking a job and living on my strike benefits, but I saw there were points of disconnect between the leadership and rank and file. So we started feeling out what we could do for the first anniversary, which didn’t seem to be a high priority for the local leadership.

Ultimately we were able to work with the leadership on building a coalition to reactivate the strike.  Out of ACOSS came the idea for the national June mobilization, and the coordination needed to get it done.

My disappointment with ACOSS is that it wasn’t as action-oriented as I’d hoped.  So some of us came up with the idea of a Shut Down Motown campaign as an action arm of the strike.  What we decided to do, back in November 1996, was a more regular schedule of actions that would cause disruptions to company, political and community leaders, the way our lives have been disrupted.

We’re thoroughly disgusted with the way a lot of politicians, who get labor money, had talked to the scab papers during the election campaign.

We saw the 60th anniversary of the Flint sitdown as very key to our own struggle.  So we launched our campaign with our own sitdown in front of the Riverfront printing plant on December 30-I know that you, Dianne, were involved in that-and we went to ACOSS and phone-banked all the strikers.

There were a lot of arrests but we got some high-profile and excellent broadcast media coverage.  And it brought our struggle to the forefront again for people who’d thought it was over. That’s a constant struggle for us-it is, after all, a media strike and it’s hard to get coverage.

That action really had an impact on a lot of us; we became a lot more radicalized.  A lot of us have become disciples of Mike Zielinski (a Teamster rep who’s been in Detroit working on this strike), an action man with a mission, who will take us right to the edge of the envelope.  When we introduced him at one of our meetings there was a standing ovation-that says it all.

ATC: Where does this struggle go next?

KDeS: We’ve got a couple of ways we’re going now. There’s the corporate campaign, targeting the Gannett and Knight- Ridder Board members.  When a group of strikers were arrested in Boston last month on a trespassing charge (at a demonstration against the directors), they decided to fight it at trial-so they went back to Boston to try to deliver subpoenas to these directors.

We’re gong to be in Philadelphia at the Knight-Ridder board meeting with at least 500 people, and we’ll be at the Gannett meeting too. We’re going to these guys’ homes and country clubs.

Then the other aspect is June 20-21, when we hope to pull off a major mobilization with the help of the local and national AFL-CIO and the Internationals of the striking locals.  We’ve done mailings to all the Central Labor Councils, labor federations and Internationals in the country.

There’s going to be a specific Teamster action.  On May 16 there will be a “Drive for Justice” past the North Plant.  We’ve got a committee set up for the Friday and Saturday June 20-21, including actions that unionists coming into town can take part in, highlighting corporate greed and the ways people can go back home and fight Gannett and Knight-Ridder.

There are chartered buses coming from many cities, even a plane chartered from San Francisco.  It’s been suggested that there could be a flag for this event, to be on all the buses and cars coming in for the march.

ATC: So you’re saying that there are different components of the planning, at the level of the official union structures and at the base?

KDeS: I think ACOSS has been doing some planning of its own. I’ve urged them to understand the reality: The forces who are funding this action will be calling the shots.  I can’t fund a major march, so I feel that if I can work together with these people we can accomplish something.

Sure, I have trouble with some of the people who run the unions.  Recently I was at a certain union hall where I saw a lot of Lincolns in the parking lot, which didn’t have any “No Scab Papers” bumper stickers.  Well, they do now .  .  .

But after all, the union movement is only as strong as its cooperation.  With a spirit of internal fighting-whether it comes from the officials or the rank and file-we aren’t going to get anywhere against the corporate giants, who are united.

ATC: How do you see your own future?  What happens if and when you get called back to work?

KDeS: I haven’t really planned it out, because I’ve learned I have to go day by day. I haven’t been able to predict anything, from the first day of this strike.

I’m not sure whether my future will be in journalism.  In a way this strike has ruined me for that-because I don’t see corporate journalism as changeable.  If there were a national labor newspaper that would be very attractive to me, and organizing is also very appealing to me-but not the life style that goes with it.

I thought about going back to school; I was at Stanford for a year on my fellowship and I learned how much I love writing fiction.  Before the strike, I was working on a book project and I thought I was on my way. I’ve been unable to concentrate on that, but it’s still a lively subject having to do with justice and women and religion.

But right now my whole head is into this struggle .  .  .

I always like to conclude by thanking people for their support.  I don’t know where we would be if we weren’t in Detroit, with people who are fundamentally with us on the right track.  It was so cool that I didn’t have to fight Gannett and Knight-Ridder by myself, which is often how it felt when I was inside.

You understand that there’s a “common union” and “community,” which of course is where “communion” comes from. That’s better than what I had before.  The best writers write with their own voice; and in this strike I’ve learned to speak with a voice I didn’t know I had, the verbal rather than written voice.

Billy Bragg has a phrase about “socialism of the heart,” and I feel I have a “unionism of the heart,” which I’ve been able to speak about to workers all over the country who had been really beaten down.

ATC 68, May-June 1997