Albion Monitor /News

Publishers Sued in Detroit News Strike

by Laura McCreery

Charges that joint daily editions during strike broke law

A lawsuit filed November 21 by Detroit's former mayor and other local officials raised the stakes in a major labor dispute against that city's two daily newspapers. Although the strike against the Gannett-owned Detroit News and Knight-Ridder's Detroit Free Press is in its fifth month, it has received scant coverage from major American newspapers. A similar strike one year ago in San Francisco against the Chronicle and the Examiner was settled after only 12 days.

The class-action lawsuit by former Detroit mayor Coleman Young, the current city council president and six others charged the two newspapers with publishing joint daily editions during the first nine weeks of the strike in violation of their 1989 agreement with the Justice Department to publish jointly only on weekends.

Detroit Newspapers, the business entity that manages the two papers' joint operating agreement, or JOA, says it filed a 1992 amendment to the JOA specifically to allow for daily joint publication during a strike situation. But the lawsuit says the amendment was never made available for public comment or approved by Justice and that it was filed under rules for joint operations formed before 1970.

Tim Kelleher, senior vice-president of labor relations for Detroit Newspapers, said in a statement that the lawsuit is "frivolous and absolutely without merit."

"It is merely a repetition of the complaint already filed with the Justice Department in August," he said.

Antitrust officials at the Justice Department say only that the petition filed in August by the striking unions and the National Labor Relations Board still is under investigation.

Most still on strike since July 13

The antitrust suit came only a week after Detroit Newspapers filed its own lawsuit charging the striking unions with violations of federal racketeering laws. Under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act, the agency charged the six unions with making verbal and physical threats to employees and vandalizing printing facilities and employee cars with fires and pipe bombs. Violence has erupted several times in connection with attempts by pickets to block delivery of the jointly published Sunday edition of the News and Free Press.

The two lawsuits capped a period of bitter disagreement and broken negotiations in Detroit that has left both sides angry and disillusioned. Of the 2,500 employees who walked out July 13 after working without contracts since April 30, most still have not returned to work. After 20 weeks of picketing production facilities, striking workers carried out a major leaflet campaign at shopping centers on Thanksgiving weekend, targeting their efforts to 100 major newspaper advertisers. Strikers also have started two newspapers of their own to help get the word out.

Representatives of both sides told the Associated Press in mid-November that the status of negotiations was far from hopeful.

"No progress," said Lou Mleczko, president of the Newspaper Guild of Detroit. "There's been bargaining going on, but nothing that we could say has any substance to it. The company has dug in its heels and, as far as we're concerned, has been totally inflexible."

"Totally stalled," echoed Frank Vega, chief executive and president of Detroit Newspapers. "We've seen no movement at all after 47 meetings with the unions to try to resolve the issues that caused this strike. They're still standing on 99 percent of the points."

Meanwhile, both the News and the Free Press have posted substantial third-quarter losses owing to the strike. The Wall Street Journal reported October 20 that Knight-Ridder suffered an 82 percent drop in its third-quarter net earnings. The two papers together have been widely reported to have lost at least $46 million from the strike, and both report nearly 25 percent circulation and advertising losses.

Many papers, including those in the San Francisco area, silent on the issues behind dispute

Many of the nation's major newspapers have given only fleeting attention to the non-economic issues of Detroit's impasse. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported in early November that the Detroit dailies were gaining the upper hand, an account contested by the striking unions. But many papers, including those in the San Francisco area, have been silent on the issues at the heart of the dispute.

A major point of contention for the unions is the plan of the two Detroit newspapers to replace guaranteed employee pay raises with a merit-based system that would award most increases at the discretion of supervisors. At the Free Press, workers already have gone without cost-of-living increases for six years.

Gannett and Knight-Ridder also want to organize some 2,800 independent distributors of their papers, forcing the carriers to become company agents. Dozens of major newspapers nationwide already have made this switch, viewed by unions as a tactic to eliminate jobs and deflate union power.

Also at issue is the larger concern by many that only corporate giants such as Gannett and Knight-Ridder benefit when newspapers publish jointly. History has shown that joint operations initiated in the name of editorial diversity often result in the demise of one paper and a monopoly for the other, an outcome each JOA is specifically meant to avoid. Joint operating agreements in St. Louis, Columbus, Miami, Nashville, Tulsa and other large cities have given way to single-paper monopolies in the last dozen years.

The Newspaper Preservation Act, which became law in 1970, solidified the antitrust exemption enjoyed by jointly published newspapers since the 1930's but also established new guidelines for subsequent joint operating agreements. Under the "failing company doctrine" of general antitrust law, partial JOAs would allow daily papers competing in the same market to publish jointly on weekends -- combining advertising, circulation, production and business functions -- if one paper would otherwise fail for economic reasons, leaving the city in question with only one daily newspaper voice.

The JOA proposed in 1986 for Detroit was controversial from the start, in part because neither the Gannett-owned News nor Knight-Ridder's Free Press was appreciably failing. When then-Attorney General Edwin Meese approved the JOA bid against the recommendations of an administrative law judge and his own Antitrust Division, the case went all the way to a Supreme Court stalemate before being allowed to stand in 1989 for a record term of 100 years. Although few JOA-watchers think the arrangement will last that long, it remains to be seen whether both of Detroit's daily newspapers will survive even the current decade.

Media law expert Stephen R. Barnett of the University of California, Berkeley has long believed that, largely because the Detroit JOA was such a fiasco, the years-long period of establishing new JOAs has been replaced by a new trend of dismantling them. Interviewed last year just after San Francisco's strike, Barnett called the Detroit agreement the real monster of all JOAs because of its length, though he doubts it will last 100 years.

"It clearly won't happen," he said. "They'll probably be killing off the Detroit News sometime way before then."

The six striking unions are:

  • Newspaper Guild of Detroit, Local 22
  • Newspaper Drivers and Handlers (Teamsters), Local 372
  • Detroit Mailers (Teamsters), Local 2040
  • Graphic Communications International Union, Local 289
  • Graphic Communications Union, Local 13
  • Detroit Typographical Union

  • Albion Monitor December 3, 1995 (

    All Rights Reserved.

    Contact for permission to reproduce.

    Front Page