Ten years after

Jul 20, 2005 at 12:00 am

Ten years ago this month, more than 2,000 newspaper workers went on strike against The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press.

The short version of history is that they lost, badly. The newspapers, both owned by powerful national corporations, had replacement workers ready to roll. They had secretly arranged to pay the costs of police overtime to defend their Sterling Heights printing plant. They were prepared to do what it took to win, regardless, and the sad fact is that the unions were not.

Some union members crossed picket lines right away. Others drifted back as their money ran out. And, as Jane Slaughter reported in Labor Notes in 2001, the unions were not prepared to do what it took — which would have meant breaking the law — to force the papers to halt production. “They don’t want to get tickets,” she quoted one striker as saying when asked why the workers didn’t blockade the printing plant.

When that was established, the strike was effectively lost. That doesn’t necessarily mean it could ever have been won, and it doesn’t mean the unions didn’t make the employers pay a much bigger price than they expected.

Yet the unions lost. Nineteen months after the strike began, they offered to return to work. But News owner Gannett and Free Press owner Knight Ridder said sorry, they were keeping their replacement workers; they would take strikers back only as needed.

Recently I went to see Lou Mleczko, head of the Newspaper Guild of Detroit then and now. I always felt that the unions made a mistake in going on strike in July, when ad revenues are low anyway, and when the papers had replacement workers sitting around waiting.

“We had to do that,” he told me. After bargaining for months without a contract, the company, instead of working under the old contract until the new one was agreed to, began one-sidedly putting into place the changes they intended to make. The membership voted overwhelmingly to strike.

Maybe they had no choice but to walk out then. And maybe, no matter what the unions did, there was no way the strike could have been won.

When it was clear the Detroit strike had been lost by the unions, the conventional wisdom was that newspaper unions all over the country would be cowed into being doormats for management.

But Mleczko argues persuasively that something else happened: That in Cleveland and Philadelphia and other cities, management and unions alike were horrified at the carnage both sides suffered here, and worked harder than they otherwise might have to reach agreements that were fair to both sides.

What’s certain is that the Detroit newspapers lost more circulation than they bargained for — and that essentially none of it came back even when the strike ended. Indeed, the papers continue to lose readers.

They also lost a great deal of money — probably more than $200 million — and even today, these papers have never become the profit centers Knight Ridder and Gannett hoped for.

Nor were the unions utterly destroyed, though to get eventual contracts, they had to agree to something they would once have died to prevent — an open shop, meaning workers in the bargaining unit are free not to join.

Mike Elrick, the vice-chairman of the Guild’s Free Press unit, says the number who have chosen to join the Guild is now more than 60 percent of those eligible, double the figure in 2002. “We won some important benefits in our last contract,” including a decent health-care plan, he says. “We are the glue that helps hold this joint together.”

Elrick wasn’t here when the strike tore Detroit journalism apart. Looking back, he says, “We look to the past only inasmuch as we can learn from it, though we never forget the debt we owe to those who helped us get where we are.”

In an ironic twist, Mleczko told me that when Mitch Albom got in trouble over his infamous column this spring, he went to the Guild for help. During the strike, many union members were furious with the Free Press star when he crossed the picket lines and returned to work after a few weeks.

Yet the Guild defended him, supplying a lawyer and a representative who went with him to his disciplinary hearing. It even defends nonmembers in the bargaining unit if asked to.

What if another newspaper strike were to happen today? The betting here is that the unions would have even less chance of success. Only a small minority of readers used the Internet in 1995, and the strike accelerated both newspapers’ plans to launch online editions. Even if strikers today blocked delivery trucks, they’d be hard-pressed to prevent a virtual newspaper from being browsed in hundreds of thousands of American homes.

Doron Levin, a business writer who worked for both The New York Times and Detroit Free Press before landing at bloomberg.com, thinks the strike only accelerated the inevitable. “Just look around the country and see the shrunken, misshapen hulks of once-great newspapers,” he says. “Technology has its inexorable way of marching forward, destroying so much in order to make way for the new.

“I read Tom Friedman’s column this morning on my Blackberry. That’s the future, my friend, and some day it also will be the past.”

A wise man once told me that the great railroads ended up ruined because they made a fatal mistake. They forgot they weren’t really in the railroad business but in the transportation business — and when styles of transportation changed, they didn’t change with them.

You can’t help wonder if that’s a mistake both the unions and the newspaper companies they fought are making today. In May 1985, The Detroit News and Free Press sold 1,630,000 papers every Sunday.

Twenty years later, the total is less than 700,000. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be newspaper people, not here anyway.


Town Hall: The mainstream media in this country, as the far right likes to call it, has probably paid too little attention to the so-called Downing Street Memo, which seems to prove beyond much doubt that President George II decided to invade Iraq long before he said he did, and that his valet, Tony Blair, knew all about it. This Saturday, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, noted peace activist Al Fishman and a gallery of other heavyweights will hold a Town Hall Meeting from 2 to 4 p.m. in Wayne State University’s law school auditorium. Duck out of the heat and go.


Election Update: I don’t know much about Janice Winfrey, other than that she’s a math teacher who’s worked in public administration, but I do know that if I could, I would vote for her for city clerk in Detroit’s Aug. 2 primary.

Nearly everyone has their own story about the incompetence of aged incumbent Jackie Currie’s regime. Here’s mine: Last fall, I received a flier in the mail from Currie, reproving me for not having voted in the city of Detroit since at least 1998, and encouraging me to do so. Trouble is, that would be against the law, since my home is in Huntington Woods — which is where she sent the flier!

However, she was right about my not having voted in Detroit. I never have, because I last lived in the city in 1956, when I was 4.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]