Rank-and-File Initiatives

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

Neil Chacker

IF THE DETROIT newspaper strike/lockout ever ends, there will be no shortage of debate over who won or lost it. This article will concentrate on a unique aspect of how the strike was fought: My own feelings are that the most significant thing is the way the strike has been waged from the bottom up, in contrast to the criminal apathy at the top.

UAW strikes are mostly scripted like professional wrestling bouts, and tightly controlled from above.  But even those most critical of Solidarity House’s timid and collaborationist leadership expect them to have at least a strategy for conducting a strike.

It soon became obvious that the leaders of the six Detroit newspaper locals had not anticipated a serious strike-had not planned or prepared for it, and had no idea how to conduct it. A vacuum existed, which was to be filled by a diverse collection of rank-and-file militant strikers, community activists and labor radicals.

The months since July, 1995 have seen a triangular struggle, among the official union leadership (itself divided over aims and tactics), the volunteers (ditto), and the Detroit Newspaper Agency (which appears monolithic and inflexible).

In this situation socialists, who for decades have been advocating rank-and-file democracy as the cure for the weakness of the labor movement, have been given an invaluable opportunity to test our ideas in practice.  The time has come to evaluate the results of that practice.

Our solidarity with the striking, now locked-out workers, remains unshaken, along with our profound admiration for the struggles they have waged and the suffering they have endured.  Any criticisms of some of the decisions that have been made is intended solely to help win this struggle and to prepare for the coming ones.

The Official Leadership

The structural weakness of the AFL-CIO was never so obvious as during this strike.  In theory, leadership is provided by the Metro Council of six striking locals.  In practice, these are subordinate to the national unions involved and the national AFL-CIO.

Any coalition is a weak reed at best; several overlapping ones are a recipe for paralysis.  Responsibility is divided and subdivided until nobody is accountable.  Consensus is achieved by restraining the policies of the whole group to its weakest and most timid element.

The flexible principle of “protocol” supposedly restrains one union from interfering in the affairs of another (and inhibits the AFL-CIO from putting pressure on cowardly, corrupt or ineffective local leadership).  In practice it allows the top guns to avoid taking public responsibility for losing strikes, but offers no barrier to their privately clamping down on locals whose militancy threatens to rock the boat.

The Metro Council had a history of concessions to the DNA and were prepared to make more in 1995.  They never expected Knight-Ridder and Gannett to wage a war against them in “the city of Reuther and Hoffa.”  They were shocked, not least by the fact that their prestige had diminished to the point where scabs could be used in Detroit.

Even after the newspapers broke off negotiations to publish with scabs, the union officials acted as if a show of force would bring the DNA back to its senses and the bargaining table.  Thousands of strikers and supporters were mobilized to hear good rousing speeches, and sent home again.

We don’t know what kind of debates went on inside the Metro Council during the Summer of `95.  Their own interests and the strikers’ expectations pressured them to escalate the struggle, yet they still had illusions about a return to the “status quo ante.”  The oral tradition of the Heroic Thirties offered no practical guidelines for shifting gears into class-struggle mode.

The evidence suggests that they tried to have it both ways: to intimidate the DNA with a display of rank-and-file power, while maintaining their own role of reasonable compromisers.

The Volunteers

A grouping of militants among the strikers, well aware of the shortcomings of the official leadership, were the first to organize independently as the Unity/Victory Caucus.  Non- strike activists were allowed to participate in UVC meetings and actions, but without voting rights.

The UVC saw its functions as both to prod their local union officers into escalating the strike, and to carry out independent actions on their own. These included mobilizing people for picket lines and demonstrations, providing speakers for union meetings and public events, producing literature to publicize the strike and gain community support, and generally carry out guerilla warfare against the DNA.

The UVC denied it was an opposition faction, but was inevitably branded as such by the local administrations.  The Metro Council slandered the UVC in the most disgusting manner-red-baiting the caucus, spreading rumors about theft of money raised to support the strike, etc. One staffer went so far as to denounce them to a DNA manager in a conversation that was printed in the “Detroit News”!

A short time later, a broad support group was organized with the title of Labor/Community/Religious Coalition in Support of the Newspaper Strikers.  The coalition attempted to cooperate with the Metro Council, but found it a highly frustrating experience.  Intense planning work for rallies, demonstrations and other support activities would be submitted for approval to the Metro Council-only to disappear into the bureaucratic swamp.

After weeks of indecision the Coalition’s proposals would be rejected or watered down beyond recognition.  Some very good people were burned out by the frustration of dealing with the Metro Council administration.

About the time that the national AFL-CIO belatedly became more involved in the strike, the coalition metamorphosed into the Action Coalition of Strikers and Supporters (ACOSS), which continues to carry on the struggle.  Another body on the scene has been Women Involved in Labor Disputes (WILD), which consisted of women strikers and strikers’ wives.

These groups have primarily oriented toward traditional methods of attempting to shut down production and distribution through mass mobilization and confrontation.  Another community group, Readers United, emphasized mass non- violent resistance.  Centered in the activist religious sector, they held a series of civil disobedience actions resulting in about 300 arrests and good publicity.

DNA management, though somewhat rattled by these actions—enough that “Detroit News” publisher Robert Giles proclaimed, indignantly and ignorantly, that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s struggle had nothing to do with strikes and unions!—was unmoved by moral suasion.

Lessons on Organization

Some lessons from the strike experience, which appear obvious in hindsight, were not so at the time. One is that the militancy of the rank and file does not automatically produce the degree of organization needed to wage a successful struggle.  Another is that incumbent union officials, even if largely discredited, retain more power than we anticipated.

During the Saturday night pickets, for example, intended to halt distribution of the lucrative Sunday edition, hundreds or thousands of volunteers would flock to the picket line around 8 pm. After four or five hours of blocking trucks, they would start to drift away. Sometime before dawn, Vance Guards and police would go on the offensive against the exhausted, outnumbered and demoralized remnant of pickets, and move out the papers.  It was obvious to the strikers that the solution was to send people down in shifts-so there would always be pickets in force-but the rank and file lacked the resources, and the official leadership the motivation, to ever make it happen.

After the Metro Council capitulation to the injunction had ended mass picketing at the printing plants, and the regional distribution centers became prime targets, the volunteer leadership went to great lengths to disperse the goon squads by misleading the DNA about what the night’s target would be.

But for all their ingenuity, nobody can say the process went smoothly.  Many pickets found it frustrating to wait around the union hall for hours, lay down a few false trails and finally search for the real target distribution center after it was announced-especially the ones who missed a checkpoint and never made it to the gate at all.

In the end one has to wonder how much all the deception was worth, since the Vance Guards had the transport and communication capacity to concentrate their forces anywhere in short order.

The situation was of course complicated by the union leaderships’ ambivalence toward mass mobilization.  While fearful of the ranks “getting out of hand”-both on the basis of the threat of legal action against the unions and as a political threat to their own careers-they had to pay at least lip-service to the motions that the rank-and-file membership had passed at local meetings.

The leaders also knew that this type of action was the most effective means of pressuring the DNA. Their primary concern was not to let anything happen for which the leadership would bear legal responsibility.

Their official policy sometimes was to endorse “legal and peaceful” demonstrations.  As minimal as this concession was, it made a real difference in the ranks’ ability to carry out mass actions.

Large scale mobilizations independent of (or in opposition to) the Metro Council didn’t come off: Otherwise supportive locals wouldn’t allow their facilities to be used for activities that the official leadership opposed, and even more important, most rank-and-file strikers were not willing to commit themselves fully to the opposition.  Partly this is due to understandable doubts about whether rank-and-file volunteers, without official credentials, could run and win a strike.

Further, the threat that people would not be defended if fired for “misconduct,” or that their strike benefits would be cut off, was quite sufficient to discourage all but the most dedicated.  There has been a gratifyingly large number of striker militants, but not enough to turn the tide against the DNA or the conservatism of the Metro Council.

Out of necessity the militants have had to plan a campaign to be carried out by hundreds, not thousands.  Whether working independently or under the Metro Council’s nominal leadership, activists never ceased trying to push the envelope of this low-intensity conflict.

One morale-raising example during the advertiser boycott was the release of a number of white mice wearing “No Scab Papers” stickers in a department store with an anti-union reputation.

It was obvious to most, however, that these tactics could only serve as a holding action to keep the strike alive until the balance of forces changed.  So far, unfortunately, most of the changes have not been positive.

The Left

The newspaper strike naturally attracted the attention of the radical labor left. Most did constructive work (with one notable exception: a small but destructive sect called the Revolutionary Workers League, styling itself the Strike to Win Committee, whose egocentric indiscipline and adventurous behavior on the picket line soon made them unwelcome and ultimately caused the militants to bar them from all strike-related activities).

The socialist group Solidarity has won the respect of activists who are familiar with it; there is also considerable support for the” Labor Notes” newsletter and the Labor Party, whose Detroit chapter has been active in strike support.

Most important, a very valuable entity has evolved in the course of this strike-a cadre formed of highly motivated individuals from a broad variety of unions and political organizations.  The inaction of the Metro Council has meant that the initiatives aimed at winning this struggle originated from below, including the national demonstration scheduled for June 20-21.

Detroit newspaper strikers and activist supporters have learned, organizationally as well as politically, how to mobilize the rank and file and the community; we have gained great insight into the natures of the corporate power structures, the political establishment and the union bureaucracies.

We have learned whom we can rely upon and who talks a good fight.  Regardless of how this strike ends, the network that has been put together over two years of hard work and frustration, punctuated by moments of triumph, must be preserved.  It will prove invaluable in the struggles that lie ahead.

Neil Chacker is a member of UAW Local 1700.  He has participated in UAW rank-and-file opposition movements for over two decades and is currently a member of New Directions.  He has actively participated in the labor/community support for the newspaper strike.

ATC 68, May-June 1997