Forgotten anniversary: The strike that changed journalism in Detroit

Jul 13, 2009 at 1:18 pm
I might have gone through the day without noticing, but then a colleague forwarded a link to Scott Martelle’s blog. A throng of memories jostle for attention: the moments of confusion and rage, the feelings of power and powerlessness. Picket lines and line-crossing scabs. Friendships tested — and sometimes ended. Solidarity and betrayal. Great shows of courage — and sometimes recklessness — and cowardice too. The feeling that after a career following news and looking on, you were suddenly on the other side, making it. Which felt uncomfortable at first. But, for many, liberating before long.

I recall lines like: “When the company tries to kill me, that’s when we part ways” — said by a colleague after the night a truck barreled toward a line of pickets, she having been one of them. “That’s raw capitalist power!” — said as helicopters flew over picket lines to reach the riverfront printing plant. “Fit me for a RICO suit” — touted on buttons when strikers were accused of being racketeers. And the oft-said: “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”

I’m talking about the great Detroit newspaper strike that began on July 13, 1995, “a long and nasty affair, with occasional flashes of violence,” as Scott aptly puts it. And it dragged on for six years until the unions (bruised and battered, but not crushed, as Gannett and Knight Ridder had hoped) got new contracts. Among the hundreds of lives changed by the strike, there’s Martelle who left the Detroit News for the Los Angeles Times in the midst of the strike. For me, the strike was key to the chain of events that brought me to Metro Times after more than a decade at the Freep.

The lasting impact? Much more could be said, but I pretty much agree with Scott when he says: “The papers never did recover, and to this day are viewed with suspicion and skepticism among many of Detroit's fervent union supporters. In the end, I see the strike as a draw.”

I suspect when we get to the 15th anniversary in 2010, there’ll be more reflections and analysis. In the meantime, thanks for reminding me, Scott. See you on another picket line sometime. (No, please no, just joking.)