On Strike Without A Strategy

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

an interview with a union organizer

AGAINST THE CURRENT spoke with a union organizer, closely involved in the Detroit newspaper strike and lockout, who offers the following observations.

ATC: Where do things stand now with the lockout situation?

A.: By the end of April, the company will have called back around 150 or 200 workers, of more than 2000 who have stayed out. They made it clear that they’re in no rush to call back any of the Teamsters, who are by far the largest group of strikers.

They are calling back press operators and printers in somewhat greater numbers-workers who have lifetime job guarantees and some special skills.  The companies have had some problems running the presses with the scabs.  They’ve made it clear, though, they’re standing by the scab work force, and have no intention of acting on the real substance of the unions’ offer to return to work.

The local unions are really relying primarily on a legal strategy, waiting for the NLRB to seek an injunction and for a federal judge to hand down a court order that would compel the companies to get rid of the scabs.

Rank-and-file strikers remain interested in carrying out actions to compel the companies not only to take the workers back but also to negotiate fair union contracts.  This is not only the 2000 officially locked out but 200 of the most active strikers who have been fired (for picket line or civil disobedience activity).  Some people have been fired three, four, even five times-each of which would have to be adjudicated in order to get them reinstated.

The active rank-and-file strikers, who almost without exception were opposed to making the unconditional offer to return to work, aren’t content to just sit around while some judge decides their fate. They want action and they want it now.

I think people see June 20-21 as an opportunity for the labor movement to make a strong stand-not only for the Detroit newspaper workers, but a national statement that we won’t accept union-busting tactics, and that there needs to be an end to bringing in “permanent replacement workers.”  So even if there were to be an injunction and a lot of workers going back before that time, there is still a good reason for people to mobilize in Detroit.

The concern is that the action will be a largely symbolic walk-in-the-park, rather than going after stopping production of the scab papers-a course of action that the locals, the Internationals and the AFL-CIO are never going to authorize.

The other thing to add regarding the present situation is that the unions are waging a national campaign, which at this point means increasing the pressure on Gannett and Knight-Ridder directors, going after these corporate criminals in their homes and country clubs, disrupting their lives and giving them a taste of the havoc they’re wreaked on 2000 working families in Detroit.

That campaign includes demonstrations, rallies, targeting other Gannett and Knight-Ridder properties including their papers and television stations all over the country.  The unions do recognize that we can’t take on these companies just in one city.

ATC: Let’s step back and look at the methods, strategies and tactics that have been employed in this struggle-both on the official level by the union leadership, and unofficially by rank- and-file activists and supporters.  Can you start by describing how the strike was waged by the unions?

A: There never was a strategic plan for the strike.  The local unions made the decision to walk out completely on their own, without consulting their Internationals [the Teamsters, Communication Workers of America, Newspaper Guild and the Graphic artists (GCIU)].

These locals had absolutely no preparation for a strike of this duration.  I don’t think they expected the company to be so hard-line.  The Teamsters, who as I said were the largest group of strikers (Locals 372 and 2040), had no strike benefits for the first month they were out.

I’m sure the struggle between the Old Guard and Carey forces in the Teamsters had a certain effect, with Joint Council 43 here being so vehemently anti-Carey, but I wouldn’t overestimate that factor.  I think this situation was basically driven by its own dynamics, independent of those politics.

For the unions, the advertiser and subscriber/circulation boycotts were really the centerpiece strategy, and these were by and large successful.  The scab papers have a 35% overall drop in circulation, according to audited figures, and there are working-class suburbs where the drop was over 50%-actually as much as 90% in strongly union areas.

There was also a lot of success in getting advertisers to boycott the papers, and considerable success in working with the labor movement on that. There are 1400 pre-strike advertisers who are still out. Naturally, that’s hard to sustain over a long period of time, and there’s been some slippage, but it’s still effective.

Now since the offer to return to work there is some hemorrhaging.  The scab papers are naturally relentless in their propaganda and media ads proclaiming the dispute is over, which the unions haven’t had the resources to counteract.

And the unions, again, were just unprepared, when they made the offer to return, to make it clear that the boycotts continued.  It goes back to the lack of a strategic plan-their radio spots that are just running now should have been on two months ago.

Early on, the unions attempted to stop distribution by mobilizing thousands of people to the main printing plant in Sterling Heights (the North Plant) and several dozen distribution warehouses.  We encountered difficulties there-the companies rented the Sterling Heights police department, which received over a million dollars from the DNA.

“Bought and paid for,” the cops out there did the company’s dirty work, clubbing people, harassing union members, making free use of tear gas and pepper spray, and acting as a scab escort service.  That was coupled with the fact that the DNA brought in their own private army, Vance Security, 1200 professional strikebreaking thugs, and didn’t hesitate to use them against union members either in actual physical violence or intimidation.

The other factor is that the legal system is in the hands of the bosses, and the DNA had no trouble getting a judge to hand down an injunction limiting picketing.  In mid- September 1995 we had 3000 people picketing the printing plant; then the injunction said you could only have 10 people in the driveway.

The union leadership was unwilling to challenge the injunction, and backed off from the mass mobilizations at the North Plant, which I think was a crippling error.  I believe that the very first time that injunction was in place, there were a great many community and labor leaders willing to challenge it, had they been asked.  Instead, the signal they got was one of retreat.

The national AFL-CIO has provided staff and funding throughout the strike.  But I don’t think they ever lived up to their rhetorical commitment to making this a national struggle, crucial for the entire labor movement.  At different times top leaders came into the Detroit situation and called it the most significant struggle facing labor, but they never took commensurate action to match that statement.

Of course it isn’t really the role of the AFL-CIO to tell locals how to run their strike.  The decision-making rests with the locals, as it should-but the AFL-CIO never made an effort to provide greater strategic direction either.

In August 1995, Rich Trumka came in-this is before he was elected AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer on the Sweeney slate.  His union, the United Mine Workers, had provided organizers here, and the SEIU sent in people, and they put together a whole blueprint for a no-contract-no-peace campaign: plans for forming flying squads, massive mobilizations and daily activities aimed at the production of the newspapers as well as business leaders, so that the powers-that-be in the city would feel the strike had to be settled.

The locals just sat on the plan, never acted on it, and when some plans were put together for civil disobedience actions in September 1995 the unions vetoed them. Some strikers did go through a CD training but I don’t think the whole plan was ever presented or discussed.

Quite frankly, the strikers have really learned during this process.  Early on, there were people whose instincts were to carry out undisciplined action; the whole concept of mass organized civil disobedience was new for them.

In any case the locals really ruled out mass mobilization.  They were just going to rely on the boycotts.  There’s no doubt that the energy was there, and the local labor movement was prepared to provide assistance.  They just never got the call.

ATC: What about activity at the grassroots, or unofficial level?

A: Community activists organized as Readers United tried to re-energize the strike effort, beginning in March 1996, with weekly civil disobedience actions in which there 300 arrests with very broad support-from ministers, city council members, union presidents and activists from many sectors.

The leadership of the striking unions essentially kept this at arms’ length, rather than embracing these actions and encouraging members to participate.  They told their members, you may lose your job if you get arrested, so don’t hang around with those people.

In fact hundreds of strikers would come out to support the actions but this was despite, not because of, their leaders.  And I think the organizers of these actions hoped they would be a catalyst for the local unions to step up-to say, let’s do more of this-but this never happened.

So the most visible and militant strike activities happened without official sanction .  .  .

ATC: Did this really mean they were putting on the brakes, or was it case of officially signaling disapproval while really giving a go-ahead?

A: No, overall it was really putting on the brakes.  The overall message to members was to avoid militant action and CD. There were a few exceptions-these leaders aren’t necessarily consistent, and they might give a “wink and a nod” if they were feeling pressure from their members-but their attitude really was one of distance and disdain.

There are some lessons to be learned from this experience: Local unions shouldn’t take on dominant companies unless there is a solid commitment from the AFL-CIO and the Internationals.

If this were a just local strike, the unions would have won it many times over. In Detroit, we’ve killed Gannett and Knight-Ridder in terms of their advertiser and circulation base, and that damage will be long-lasting.

But the problem is, you’re going against corporations that deal in billions of dollars, so the $250 million you cost them in this market is barely a blip in their bottom line. That doesn’t mean you never strike big companies-but you don’t go in without a strategic plan and realizing you’re going to need to apply pressure from a number of angles beyond your local campaign.

ATC: But as you were previously saying, the locals never really acted in a way to force commitments to be made.

A: I think that’s right: The locals didn’t really trust the AFL-CIO and the Internationals.  They looked to them for cash, but didn’t want to be told what to do, even if they had no idea of their own.

The other lesson is that there needs to be a commitment to sustained mass mobilization, and the locals back down from that in the face of a legal system that is stacked against the labor movement.

I also believe that, regardless of the final outcome of this fight, there has been a victory of sorts for the labor movement in Detroit, in terms of the numbers of activists mobilized, trained, educated and, I think, transformed into long-term fighters for social and economic justice.

There’s a lasting legacy of activism.  This strike has brought together a whole sector of community and labor activists who have now established links and relations that will only benefit the struggles of working people everywhere.

ATC: It’s tragic that this comes at such a high price.

A: Yes, but it’s also important to communicate that this struggle is not over. There is so much confusion about this-people read in the capitalist press that it’s over, and the unions lost. Well, the unions are still fighting and the 2000 striking/locked-out workers haven’t given up.

We can be highly critical of the unions, but we must understand that the Internationals haven’t just walked away. They are, in fact, prepared to continue waging a contract campaign, which will continue until the workers who want their jobs have them back, and there’s some justice for the workers fired for their activism.

ATC 68, May-June 1997