Striking out

It was the perfect dramatic touch — a summer storm packing high winds, searing lightning and bone-rattling thunder. Perhaps the gods were issuing omens — perhaps not. But when six of the 11 unions representing workers at the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News took to the streets on July 13, 1995, that day’s storm marked the beginning of the longest, most divisive labor conflict in modern Detroit history.

For the next five-and-a-half years, about 2,500 newspaper workers fought hard against one monster of an opponent, created not by some Hollywood special-effects department but by two gigantic corporations. And, unlike in Hollywood, there was no happy ending for anyone. Detroit Newspapers — owned by Gannett Co. and Knight Ridder, two of the world’s largest newspaper companies — proved to be unbeatable, enduring what the Christian Science Monitor called the longest, most expensive newspaper strike in U.S. history.

Just before Christmas, the last two striking locals of the Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Workers voted to accept contracts far poorer than those they had walked away from that stormy day so long ago. The damage was immense: Only a third of the former strikers returned to their old jobs; the rest have either moved away, found other jobs, retired, been fired or died. And those who are back at work are often making less money and now labor in an open shop, where union membership is no longer required.

For those seeking more balance between corporate and workers’ power, the lessons of The Great Detroit Newspaper Strike are daunting.

“I think we were sort of caught up in a time warp of traditional newspaper strikes,” says Norm Sinclair, a veteran, award-winning News reporter. Sinclair co-edited the union strike paper, the Sunday Journal, for most of the 33 months he was either out on strike or waiting to be called back after the unions offered to return to work in February 1997. “It used to be that if you picketed, had an effective advertisers and readers boycott, the papers would come to the table and settle. The problem is, these are 21st century newspapers.”

These new media giants have at their disposal endlessly deep pockets, picket line-penetrating computers and barricade-hopping helicopters; squads of editors and reporters from other papers ready to step in; scads of journalism school grads hot for a job, any job; reams of digital wire copy and photos ready to bulk up a paper with a single mouse click. Given how much the business has changed, the union’s strategy was flawed from the beginning; but even that does not completely explain what happened, or what needs to be learned.

For, as Susan Watson, the former and now fired Free Press columnist who co-edited the Sunday Journal maintains, “Technically, we won.”

Watson means that, after long deliberations, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — three Democrats and two Republicans — unanimously declared in September 1998 that Detroit Newspapers was guilty of unfair labor practices during negotiations before the strike. Therefore the papers were to rehire all strikers and pay them back wages. For a while it seemed as if the unions had won.

But heartbreak struck union members when the decision did not stick. Last July, a three-judge panel of the District of Columbia Federal Court of Appeals — Reagan appointees all — unanimously reversed the NLRB and put the handwriting on the wall for all to see. Jeanette Bartz, who worked in the News photo department for 15 years and who is now retired, says the message she got from that decision was exactly the same one the rest of the country got from Washington six months later about a certain presidential election.

“I really feel that the courts are now highly politicized,” she says. “I suspected it, of course. But then when this Supreme Court made its decision about Bush … I’m just overwhelmed now. I can’t even imagine respecting the courts again for a very long time. This is so blatant.”

William Gould IV, the veteran lawyer and mediator who chaired the NLRB throughout most of the Detroit newspaper strike, agrees.

“I think there is a pattern between the two that can be compared,” he says of the federal court decisions reversing the NLRB and handing the presidential election to George W. Bush.

In the NLRB cases, he says, “the Court of Appeals was ingenious in looking for some sort of argument or fact that could disturb our findings and conclusions. What the court did was extraordinary and inexplicable on any grounds other than political philosophy.”

But the newspapers see nothing but vindication in the federal court’s reversal and seem to have expected it. That may be why Tim Kelleher, senior vice president for labor relations at Detroit Newspapers, says he remains confident that his company’s strategy was the right one, even after such havoc.

“I would approach it exactly the same way again, because it was the right way to go,” he says of the company’s tactics in the strike which eventually cost it at the very least $100 million, a third of each paper’s readership, and much of each publication’s quality, credibility and good will.

“We have nothing to be ashamed of in our offers to the workers, or in the way we conducted our bargaining,” he says of 1995’s negotiations. “Strikes serve nobody’s interest. People have to realize that. It is the absolute last resort and, frankly, both sides should do everything possible to prevent one.”

Many would scoff at Kelleher’s statement; they say there were clear signs that the papers were eager for a strike. Given its deep pockets and apparent confidence in a conservative federal court, the company may have been sure all along that it would eventually win a war of attrition.

Ben Burns, a senior manager at the News for many years before becoming a professor of journalism at Wayne State University, says that Frank Vega, president of Detroit Newspapers, gave clear warning that the papers would break any union that struck.

“He never did anything that wasn’t advertised in advance,” Burns says. “Frank Vega put up a fist when he arrived and the unions ran directly into it. I don’t think you will ever get anybody to say it, but if you amortize their losses, there are probably people inside of Gannett who think it was a pretty damned good investment.”

Vega is clearly one of them.

“They handed us $35 million a year in savings when they walked out of here — 700 jobs we don’t need any more,” he told the News in 1997. “And that’s forever.”

An article in The Boston Globe that same year indicates that Vega’s attitude is increasingly common in many industries, not just newspapers. As one expert told the Globe, “The equation has changed. Workers’ leverage has been reduced and employers are more willing to push unions to the wall and take short-term economic losses when necessary.” The article also cites U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures that say, between 1974 and the mid-1990s, major work stoppages have fallen from 435 per year to fewer than 40 per year.

Now that the newspaper company’s strategy has prevailed in Detroit, where can the unions go from here? That’s a particularly difficult question because the issues the papers were most eager to go to the mat over — merit pay and allegations of featherbedding (excessive staffing) — are ones that lose, not win, more public support for unions.

But some say the issues particular to this strike should not obscure a much larger question it, and other recent labor actions, have raised. The Rev. Edwin Rowe, pastor of the Central United Methodist Church, where strikers maintained an office for much of the conflict, says unions are now practically powerless in the face of a legal system that has diminished the effectiveness of their most potent weapon — striking.

“This is a small piece of a much larger issue,” he says, “about whether there is going to be a right to collective bargaining or whether corporate America has carte blanche. Things will be pretty dismal until Congress passes a law that forbids the hiring of permanent replacement workers in a legal strike. That was the right the NLRB was trying to preserve in its rulings. This is not just about Detroit; the civil right of collective bargaining is on the line. I mean, do workers have a real right to strike or not?”

Bartz says that, during her work on the strike, she saw potential for organizing around the concept of fair play in collective bargaining. She helped gather signatures from more than 850 clergy in the Detroit area for a document that declared “the permanent replacement of striking workers … to be morally objectionable and a breach of the ethical teachings of our faith traditions.”

“I was really surprised at the kind of support that was there,” she says; besides the clergy, 25 different city councils in the region voted to support the newspaper boycott. And, nationally, Methodist churches organized and supported a boycott of Gannett’s USA Today. But transforming that kind of support into a sea change on collective bargaining laws is a distant goal, particularly with a Republican in the White House.

Now, obviously, unions face the prospect of working even harder to win back Congress, the White House and, eventually, the courts. But some observers say the unions must also look inward and learn about the tactics necessary for dealing with companies as big and immovable as the Gannett-Knight Ridder consortium.

Steve Babson, a labor program specialist at Wayne State University’s Labor Studies Center, says that if negotiations do not go well again next time, there are things the unions can do to strengthen their hand.

“The unions had three arrows in their quiver,” Babson says of 1995 — the strike itself, an organized boycott and a legal strategy. But that’s clearly not enough anymore. He says in-plant informational campaigns and the careful preparation of a strike paper that hits the streets at the same time as the strikers are essential.

He calls the six-month lag between strike day and the Sunday Journal’s first issue “disastrous” because it crippled the unions’ ability to communicate with the public and left reporters with nothing to do — an extremely frustrating situation for people who enjoy their craft. This, he says, contributed to the large number of defections from picket lines.

Babson also says strikes must be staged during the peak advertising season — early November — when they can do the most economic damage. In the meantime, leaders should train workers in the finer points of labor negotiations and tactics, particularly the age-old technique of “work to rule” — following insurance, safety, government, contract and company regulations to the letter, reducing productivity.

“Unions need to anticipate adequately just how monumental the struggle is going to be and make sure they have enough arrows in the quiver,” he says.

Kelleher suggests more care in choosing who shoots those arrows.

“I would certainly hope that the next time there will be international representatives overseeing the actions of the locals’ leaders,” he says. “I don’t think there would have been a strike had the Teamsters had international leaders in at the time of the bargaining.”

Whether the Newspaper Guild, which represents reporters and editors, would have struck without the Teamsters, who represent workers in the distribution operations, is doubtful. William Serrin, who worked at the Free Press almost 40 years ago, currently teaches journalism at New York University and often reports on labor matters, says the Guild must get back to basics.

“What was important in the past for Guild members,” he says, “was placement of stories, amount of time spent on stories, how you hype stories and the like. Those are the working conditions issues the Guild should be involved in, not nickels and dimes.”

To fight the papers on their business methods — particularly those concerned with technology-induced job attrition in other parts of the company — is futile, he says. It’s not really what reporters are personally or emotionally concerned with.

But Mike Burrell, Newspaper Guild Sector representative with the Communications Workers of America, thinks there’s plenty of life left in newspaper unions and that “nickel and dime” issues remain entirely apropos. Burrell, who was stationed in Detroit for part of the strike, says it hasn’t tamed newspaper unions at all and, given the huge losses the company sustained, newspaper companies are prone to be more cautious, not more swashbuckling.

Burrell worked with the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild to help settle the recent 50-day strike against the Seattle Post Intelligencer and the Seattle Times. Those papers also publish under a joint operating agreement, but the size of their ownership is considerably smaller than the Gannett-Knight Ridder behemoth that’s in charge in Detroit.

“What happened in Detroit did not deter us in Seattle,” he says. “If it was the strategy of Gannett and Knight Ridder in Detroit to put the fear of God into unions in terms of strikes in the future, that strategy failed.”

And former News manager Burns says that, win or lose, newspaper unions will always be necessary.

“I’ve never felt an organization would be better without unions,” he says, “because, truthfully, deep down I don’t think managers are all that trustworthy. What this is really all about is human nature.”

And as Detroit Newspapers slyly turns a settlement that’s a disaster for its workers into a remarketing strategy for both papers — with newsstand placards and radio spots trumpeting the signed contracts, and bonuses in those contracts to reward large circulation increases — union members are pondering personal lessons too.

“I have learned I can do a lot of things I didn’t think I could do,” former Free Press star Watson says. “I now know I can survive and prosper beyond any job circumstance; I learned how important it is to love your job. I learned that if you step out on faith, do the right things, avoid being mean-spirited, things will really turn out OK.”

Sinclair, her former Sunday Journal co-editor, back at the News for several years now, has discovered much the same thing and shares Watson’s deep doubts about the future of unions and newspapers.

“Journalism was my first love and, until the strike, I had never missed a day of work in 20 years,” he says. “While I was out it was almost like it helped me grow up — I could survive without the newspaper, without the regular paycheck. When I came back to work here, it was time to get back into journalism. I haven’t recruited a single soul for the Guild; I walk straight down the middle. The company has treated me with respect. But I still pay my $95 a month union dues.”

Jim Dulzo is a Detroit freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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