Unprotected hacks 

If you’re working for Detroit’s daily newspapers and you’re not in the union, watch out: You can get fired at any time for any reason. (So can any “at will” employee in Michigan — a category that includes the serfs here at News Hits.) That’s the message Louis Mleczko, president of the Newspaper Guild of Detroit, is sending to editorial staffers at both big dailies after two veteran Detroit News employees were canned inexplicably.

As this column reported last week, Alan Stamm, an assistant news editor and 27-year News employee, was fired ostensibly for snatching free CDs and DVDs sent to the paper (stuff only reviewers are allowed to take home). George Cantor, an editorial writer who’s been pumping ink in Detroit for 40 years, was sent packing for reasons unknown. (Neither Cantor nor News management are talking.)

“I think this came as a shock to everyone at the News,” says Mleczko. “Unfortunately, because they were not protected by the contract, they will not get their day in court.”

If Stamm and Cantor had been union members, their bosses would have had to show “just cause” for the firings, and the union could have contested the discharges. Neither Stamm nor Cantor could have been members if they had wanted to be. Their jobs were exempt from union coverage at the News.

In any event, Mleczko hopes their example spurs 170 or so free riders — folks who receive benefits the union negotiates but don’t pay the dues — at the two papers to join up. Since November 2000, when the Detroit newspaper strike officially ended with a new union contract, union membership has been optional, and is less than 50 percent among the editorial staff at both papers. At the News, there’s extra impetus to join: Employees regularly complain they’re overworked and understaffed, and the base salary for grunts is “significantly less” than pay at the Free Press, says Mleczko. The News’ 190 nonmanagement editorial workers have to compete with the Freep’s 265. The Freep, which claimed in 1989 that it was a failing newspaper to justify striking a Joint Operating Agreement (basically, a waiver from antitrust laws) with the News, has been steadily rebuilding its newsroom staff since 2000, while the News staff is shrinking, Mleczko says. Profits can’t explain why: The JOA, aka Detroit Newspapers, claims it’s making money (though it won’t say how much). The JOA splits its profits with the papers’ parent corporations, Gannett (News) and Knight Ridder (Freep). Beyond that, Gannet oversees the editorial operation of the News; Knight Ridder oversees the Freep.

At the corporate level, Gannett is raking it in, boasting an 18 percent net profit margin, while Knight Ridder makes 10 cents on the dollar after paying the bills. “GM, Ford and Chrysler execs would do handstands on Woodward for a week for half the profits Knight Ridder and Gannet rack in year after year,” he says. With that kind of cash, you’d think Gannett would have lots to spend on its writers.

Despite the corporations’ financial success, both papers continue to lose circulation: The Freep went from half a million daily before the 1995 strike to 363,490 as of March; the News went from 354,000 papers sold daily in ’95 to 233,085. While the joint Sunday paper sold 1.1 million copies pre-strike, the number now is 719,885.

But back to this whole union thing. News Hits has been feeling a little insecure lately. (Seems some of the higher-ups here have this hang-up about us occasionally showing up for work drunk … like it makes any difference.) So we were wondering, Lou, if maybe you’d consider sending an organizing team over here to Metro Times?

Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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