A house divided

Jul 7, 1999 at 12:00 am

Barb Ingalls leads a dual life. Since being called back to her job as a printer at Detroit Newspapers after going out on strike nearly four years ago, she is once again the dutiful employee, showing up on time, performing her job, drawing a paycheck.

But when away from work, the battle with what she calls "the evil empire" continues as she helps put out the Detroit Sunday Journal strike paper and promotes public awareness to keep pressure on the papers and lead to a final settlement of this long and ugly dispute.

"This isn’t going to be over," promised Ingalls, "until every striker has returned to work and all six unions have signed contracts."

She and hundreds of others like her find themselves part of a strange dichotomy. Imagine yourself working at a company that provides your livelihood, but at the same time supporting a boycott of that company’s products, meant to hurt both their corporate bottom line and, ultimately, the company’s ability to continue supporting you.

"There’s a word for it," said Free Press reporter Bill McGraw, who falls solidly in the union camp. "It’s called ‘schizophrenic.’"

Inside the papers a strange stew of worker categories has evolved.

There are the line crossers – union members who broke ranks and returned to work. There are the replacement workers – "scabs" is the word the strikers use – who never belonged to a union and were brought in to keep the papers running when the strike began after six unions representing 2,500 employees walked out on July 13,1995.

"I don’t know who I’m more mad at," said one returned News reporter, "the union people who betrayed us by crossing the line or the scabs who came in to steal our jobs."

There’s middle management, some of whom were more sympathetic to strikers than others. And upper management who, if not responsible for creating the hardball corporate tactics that characterized this strike, are surely held responsible for following through with their orders thoroughly. Metro Times telephone calls seeking comment from top editors at the News and Free Press were not returned.

Then there are the returnees – union faithful who held the line and did not cross until the unions tendered an unconditional offer to return to work on Feb. 14, 1997.

Instead of being hooted and jeered at, they are more likely cheered like conquering heroes as they head in to put out a paper and collect a paycheck while the picketers they once stood with remain locked out.

Depending upon whether you believe the newspapers or the unions, there remain between 400 and 950 such people. The union includes those strikers they say were fired for a variety of offenses, some serious, others petty, and sometimes, according to strikers, entirely bogus, as being included on the list of waiting returnees.

And while the management of the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and Detroit Newspaper Association (which jointly runs the production and business operations of both papers) disagree, an administrative law judge and the National Labor Relations Board have repeatedly ruled these workers are being illegally locked out. It is the NLRB’s opinion that the strike was provoked by management’s unfair labor practices and that, as a result, all strikers should have been returned to work when the unions made their unconditional offer more than two years ago.

Yet they remain out, waiting while the papers – determined to keep their commitment to protect replacement workers and hoping to avoid paying tens of millions of dollars in back wages – appeal the ruling in U.S. District Court, a forum they consider a more level playing field.

Not everyone considers all this particularly interesting, or even relevant. Doron Levin, the star business columnist for the Free Press who quickly broke ranks with the union and returned to work in the first days of the strike, said during an interview last week that an article such as this is pointless.

"In terms of what I think, the strike is over and it has been over for a long time," he said. "The unions did what they felt they had to do. Many thought it was a mistake at the time. It turns out to have been a huge mistake. I don’t think it does the public or your readers any good to go over this every year (at the anniversary). It’s kind of a waste of newsprint."

And what about the people still waiting to get their jobs back?

There’s not that many of them, said Levin. "Put it in a newsletter."

Like his bosses, Levin doesn’t consider the people standing on the picket lines he crosses to be locked out. When it was pointed out that it’s not just the unions but also the National Labor Relations Board calling it a lockout, Levin replied: "The NLRB says a lot of things."

But of this much he’s certain: "The union has figured out a way to make itself irrelevant in a lot of workplace situations. Hope they get it now. The world changes."

The union loyalists see it this way: Despite the emotional turmoil and financial tolls suffered by the strikers, they can rightfully claim that the war still hasn’t been lost.

But it’s hard to look at this and see anyone claiming victory. A New York Times article late last year put the financial losses suffered by the papers at $100 million. An analysis in
the Newspaper Research Journal a year before placed the cost at "as much as $200 million."

Those involved have taken an emotional beating as well. People like Bill Day, a former Free Press editorial cartoonist who, as a contract employee, was trapped in a middle ground between union and management, still find the whole issue too painful to talk about. Now working for
the Commercial Appeal
in Memphis, Tenn., he declined comment when contacted by the Metro Times, saying, "The whole thing was just too traumatic. I’m trying to put it all behind me."

Even as this is being written, negotiations between the unions and the papers are ongoing. The fact that the unions are still negotiating at all is a victory from the perspective of many. And, according to at least one observer, with the string of NLRB rulings in their favor and the prospect of a relatively liberal Washington, D.C., court waiting down the road, it could be that pressure is building for the papers to settle this mess in negotiations before going to trial and leaving their fate to the judiciary.

And, despite their best efforts, it would be difficult for the papers to argue that, even after all this time, they are winning the hearts and minds of the newspaper-reading public, or that they haven’t suffered possibly irreparable damage.

At a recent Workers for Justice Committee meeting, organizer Jim St. Louis told the 30 or so locked out workers present that the "No News or Free Press Wanted Here" yard signs continue to find homes out in the community – despite the papers’ best efforts to convince the public that the dispute is settled.

Workers on the committee continue to stage protests and canvass neighborhoods to keep up the boycott pressure. The public certainly isn’t flocking back to the dailies. According to independent audits, circulation remains about 30 percent below what it was before the strike began.

McGraw and other
former strikers have seen
it firsthand as they’ve returned to work and attempted to do their jobs. "There’s a huge amount of hostility toward the papers," said McGraw.

How many disaffected readers have been lost forever may not be known, but the area’s suburban papers are boasting record numbers of readers.

Just as there have been readers who will never return, there are employees who won’t be back. The editor and managing editor of this paper, for example, both decided not to return to the Free Press when they received their call-back notices.

Others tried to return but ended up quitting in frustration. Molly Abraham, the highly regarded restaurant critic, was assigned to writing obituaries for 18 months after she was called back. At a certain point, she said, it became obvious to her that she would not be returned to her former position. She now reviews restaurants for the Oakland Press and its sister suburban papers.

According to her, she tried to make it work when she returned to the Free Press. Anger and resentment toward the company and workers who crossed picket lines was put aside.

"We knew we had to work with these people," she said. "All of us who went back made a conscience conscious decision to do the best we could. You could only be aloof for so long, then you warmed up."

By all accounts, the atmosphere in both newsrooms has been anything but the hotbed of animosity one might have expected.

"Completely cordial," is the way Levin describes the editorial department at the Free Press. "Very professional" is the way a News reporter described the situation in the newsroom there.

Things haven’t been so rosy in other departments, where returning strikers in many cases have come back to find their pay cut in half, benefits gone and hours reduced from full to part-time.

Byron ("Barney)" St. Louis, who returned to the Detroit Newspapers’ operation that puts advertising inserts in both papers, was, because of his seniority, one of the first in his union to return. With virtually no line crossers in that department, it was returnees thrust back in with replacement workers. "We just didn’t speak to each other,’" said St. Louis, who has since retired. He described a situation where replacements were getting preferential treatment. He and the handful of others who returned first were all in their 50s and older – and used to operating sophisticated, computer-controlled equipment.

"But when we went back in, they gave us the lowest level, manual labor positions in the place," said St. Louis. "They had us working strictly (the less desirable) afternoon and night shifts. And my rate of pay was backed up 20 years. It was equivalent to what I was making in 1979."

Others describe similar circumstances.

Linda Vasseur was a St. Clair Shores housewife who thought she had found a job that set her for life when she began working as a mailer for the papers at the age of 45. Now in her late 50s, she was returned to work briefly "before they kicked me out last week."

"It really broke my heart. I couldn’t work for half the pay, part time with no benefits," she said sarcastically during a break in a recent Workers for Justice Committee meeting last week. "Before the strike, I had a great job. After I was called back, working side by side with scabs, I would go in to my assigned spot, do my job and go home. I went in because my union asked me to, but it was not pleasant."

By all appearances, Vasseur seems every bit your average, middle-class mom. Nothing about her looks to be radical. And, in fact, she never had been. But this experience has changed her.

"Before this, I never paid attention to people on strike," she explained. "I wouldn’t cross a picket line, but I just didn’t pay attention. After this, though, I have come to appreciate what it means to go on strike."

"If you or I were to go before a judge and we didn’t do what he ordered, they would lock us up and throw away the key," she continued. "But with these corporations, it’s like they can do whatever they want to and get away with it. I don’t have a lot of faith in the justice system anymore. Or democracy. There has to be someone who can say these people should be back at work."