Testing the spirit

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On the fifth anniversary of the Detroit newspaper strike, just days after federal judges knocked the props from under the newspaper unions’ best hope of winning a major victory in court, former Free Press reporter Steve Jones cradled his 12-string guitar in his arms and softly explained what the long struggle meant to him.

"This strike is about more than just a job or even a paycheck," Jones told several hundred strikers and supporters who filed into the small auditorium of the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO headquarters on Lafayette, directly across from the gray fortress that houses the Detroit News and Free Press. "The strike," he continued, "is about values."

The audience burst into applause. For the dozens of locked-out, fired or recalled workers, Jones had spoken what was in their hearts.

It was Thursday, July 13, and everyone in the room was still reeling from the July 7 court decision. Three appeals court judges in Washington, D.C., overturned the National Labor Relations Board’s unanimous decision that the papers were guilty of unfair labor practices. The NLRB ruling had been strong and bipartisan. Three board members were Democrats; two, Republicans.

Striking and locked-out workers had been practically dead certain the NLRB position would prevail and the unions would leverage the victory into a contract. But the unions lost in court, and although there are plans to appeal, the men and women who had struggled so long and so hard couldn’t mask their disappointment.

Jones, a guitar-strumming poet who became an English teacher after the start of the strike, was disappointed too. But during that vigil, he reached into his soul and delivered a message as clear as a lesson on the blackboard of his Chadsey High classroom. The strike was about values. And, no court ruling, no threat of being fired, no amount of hardship, can change that.

To be sure, the dispute started as a struggle over wages and working conditions. Had it remained simply that, many of the people in that auditorium would have crossed the picket line years ago. Had the strike focused exclusively on exacting revenge from the papers, workers would have thrown in the towel when those three judges in the capital of compromise sided with the papers and the corporate giants that own them.

But along the way, the strike and the strikers changed; physical stamina, emotional strength and financial viability stopped being the key issues. What was being tested was your spirit. Your core. Your sense of who you are and where you belong not just in this dispute, but in a universe where time bends herself into a circle and gathers in her arms everyone who has or will live on this Earth.

What was being tested were principles you want to believe are as much a part of you as your heartbeat. Over and over again, soul-probing questions dominated the thoughts of printers and truck drivers, writers and customer-service workers and even managing editors and publishers: What do you believe in? Do you have the courage of those convictions?

In the first days and months, the answers came easily for strikers whose chants in support of solidarity, justice and collective bargaining rattled the windows of the newspaper buildings. But excitement gave way to a sometimes suffocating uncertainty, even fear. The test questions would pop up again: Do you have the courage of your convictions? Do you carry those convictions in your heart or settle for waving them on your picket sign? Can you stay the course?

Those of us who through God’s grace found the courage to stay that course came to view our situation with fresh eyes. Victory no longer meant merely winning a contract or a favorable court ruling — though Lord knows it would be great. Victory meant understanding that our strike was just one battle in a continuing war on injustice. Victory meant that the daily pressure of such a lopsided battle (The newspapers had cops and cash; the strikers had picket signs and maxed-out credit cards.) didn’t crush us, but made us stronger. Victory meant savoring the delicious taste of freedom that only comes when you confront your most crippling fears and send the rascals packing.

Or, as the Rev. Ed Rowe of Central United Methodist Church said at the prayer vigil, victory is refusing to allow your success to be defined or limited by three conservative judges or by two corporate giants.

"Do not let three judges make a shambles of the word justice and tell anybody that the fight is over," he said. "The fight has just begun."

About two years after the "first" beginning of the strike, I began to notice that more and more people were telling me not to give up hope. The same thing was happening to other strikers. People assured us that we would win in the long run. At first I would smile and thank the speaker for the support. Then, one day my response took me by surprise.

"We have already won," I said without hesitation. Then, as if repeating the answer to a question on a test, I said again, "No matter what happens, we have already won."

Only later would I learn that our victory grows sweeter every single day. Susan Watson is a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame and a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Send comments to [email protected]

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