How Hoffa Betrayed Detroit Newspaper Workers

Against the Current, No. 94, September/October 2001

Tom Bernick

AS TEAMSTERS PREPARE to cast their ballots for president of their union, they will be interested in learning how and why James P. Hoffa betrayed the Detroit Newspaper Workers.  After enduring a 19-month strike and a subsequent lockout of nearly four years, two Teamster locals were forced to accept contracts that could not have been worse.

Hoffa gave Gannett and Knight Ridder, publishers of the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press under a joint operating agreement, virtually everything they demanded—open shops, no amnesty for workers fired illegally, massive pay cuts (about $5/hour for the mailers), and more.

Union members were told that all strike benefits would be cut off the month following the scheduled votes, and that failure to ratify would enable the company to impose even more devastating conditions than those already in effect.  In fact, the company had already made all of the changes it wanted, and the weakened contracts allow it to make almost any other changes it wants in the future.

As an added incentive for the locals to approve the contracts, Hoffa promised to assist them in organizing the scabs and to provide job training for fired workers.  No such help has ever been given.

Crippling the Struggle

The sellout of his members began soon after Hoffa took office in March of 1999.  One of his first acts as president was to fire Mike Zielinski, the most effective Teamster field rep working on behalf of the newspaper workers.

Zielinski had formed the Workers Justice Committee, a group of strikers that worked on the dispute full time under an enhanced benefits program.  The WJC organized demonstrations, picketed company facilities, leafleted parking lots and neighborhoods, and engaged in various other activities that exerted pressure on the company.

Because of the success of the WJC, newspaper executives hated and feared Zielinski more than any other activist.  His loss seriously and needlessly weakened the unions.  All requests for an explanation of why he was fired were ignored.  Hoffa allowed the WJC to exist after Zielinski’s ouster, but forced it to spend nearly all of its time working on the Overnite Transportation strike rather than the newspaper strike.  This, of course, greatly pleased the company.

When it became clear that his strategy at Overnite was a failure, he abruptly cut off funding for the WJC, giving its members, who had already suffered great economic hardships for nearly five years, less than a week’s notice that they would have to find other jobs.

Shortly after he became president, Hoffa had his minion Jon Rabine take over contract negotiations from local union officials, even forbidding them at times from attending bargaining sessions.

Declaring Victory

Hoffa’s goal was to end the dispute at all costs, then proclaim victory in a cynical attempt to portray himself as an effective leader.  And this is exactly what he did. In an interview in the Detroit News after the ratification votes, Hoffa had the nerve to boast that he had negotiated “a good settlement” for his members (4 February 2001).

Even more shocking were his subsequent actions.  Soon after his shameful contracts were signed in December of 2000, Detroiters began to see billboards and signs on buses announcing the end of the strike and urging the public to “support” the unions by again subscribing to the papers.

One would assume that the papers are financing this continuing campaign; but, in fact, Hoffa and the Teamsters are picking up the tab. And there’s more.

Hoffa attempted to organize a crew of paid fired and locked-out workers to go door to door to drum up new subscribers to the papers.  His budget for this appalling plan is reported to be $300,000.

Not surprisingly, the integrity of the would-be recruits seems to have killed this program before it could get off the ground.  This from a man who would not even put up a “No News or Free Press Wanted Here” lawn sign in front of his Troy, Michigan, home during the strike.

Blackmail and Betrayal

The obvious question is, why did he take these actions?  For one thing, high Teamster officials like Hoffa, who are quick to shout, “One day longer!” when the cameras are running, had long since grown weary of the battle.

But the main factor was the company’s bogus RICO suit against the unions.  The papers sued for $62 million.  If the case had been pursued and they had won, they would have collected triple damages.  It was feared that even though the suit was without merit, there were enough right-wing ideologues in the courts that a company victory was a possibility.  The unions had already learned in July of 2000 that their faith in a just judicial system was naive and misguided.  It was then that a Court of Appeals ruling by three Reagan appointees overturned a unanimous NLRB decision (three Democrats and two Republicans) that condemned the company for causing the strike by violating federal labor laws.

This immoral court ruling robbed the unions of much of their bargaining leverage, giving Hoffa an excuse for caving in. So great was his fear of this company that he also agreed to contribute $1 million to its drive to regain lost circulation.  In return for his treachery, the papers dropped the suit.

Despite the Court of Appeals ruling, the unions still had a powerful weapon with which to punish the company: the boycott.

Management was convinced at the beginning of the strike that it would collapse within six months.  But after five and a half years of extensive advertising campaigns and deceptive reporting regarding the strike, the circulation of the papers was down over thirty-five percent and still falling.

Hoffa’s contention that the unions were left without any bargaining leverage was therefore not true.

Newspapers Support Hoffa Regime

Another factor motivating Hoffa’s actions appears to be his desire to ingratiate himself to the management of Gannett and Knight Ridder in the hope that they will support efforts to remove the Teamsters from federal oversight of the union.

Owners of well over a hundred papers between them, these two companies could exert a great deal of influence if they pursued this goal nationwide.  Indeed, an editorial has already appeared in the Detroit News taking this position (11 February 2001).

But there may be one other element in the mix. As an additional reward for his betrayal of the newspaper workers, it comes as no surprise that Gannett and Knight Ridder seem to be supporting his candidacy for president of the Teamsters by casting him in a favorable light through the kind of biased reporting at which they both excel.

Three days after the contracts were ratified, Hoffa called a news conference to declare an end to the boycott of the papers.  This was something he did not have to do. It was simply another favor to a company that had just weakened two Teamster locals nearly to the point of irrelevancy.

Today, six years after the beginning of the strike, many workers remain locked out and illegally fired while others are harassed on the job.

Hoffa may claim that the boycott has ended, but ask rank and file union members and the thousands of Detroiters who still refuse to buy those papers, and they will tell you that it will continue until justice in the workplace is restored.

Tom Bernick was a Detroit newspaper strike activist and a member of Teamster Local 2040 until November 2000, when he refused a company offer to return to work with a pay cut of more than $7.50 an hour.

from ATC 94 (September/October 2001)