Albion Monitor /Commentary

No Winners in Detroit News Strike

by Randolph T. Holhut

Of the 2,500 workers who struck the papers, fewer than 200 have been recalled
(AR) There are rarely ever any winners in a newspaper strike. Usually, the newspaper that's struck dies. If the paper doesn't go under, the strikers either lose their jobs for good or, if they're lucky, are offered their old positions at a substantial cut in pay.

In today's anti-labor environment, there's only so much a worker can do when his bosses jerk him around. That's why in a labor dispute, strikes are the ultimate weapon -- to be used only in the gravest extreme.

The 2,500 men and women who worked for the Detroit Free Press (one of 35 papers owned by Knight-Ridder) and the Detroit News (owned by Gannett, the largest U.S. chain with 91 dailies) took a big chance on July 13, 1995 when they walked out. The strike lasted 583 days and was one of the most bitterly contested, violent newspaper strikes of recent years.

On Feb. 14, 1997, the Council of Newspaper Unions made an offer to return to work. The management of the papers accepted it, but on their terms. The 1,400 replacement workers brought in during the strike would keep their jobs, and the strikers would get their jobs back only when vacancies in the current work force occurred. Of the 2,500 workers who struck the papers, fewer than 200 have been recalled.

Last month, I had a chance to hear about the battle in Detroit from two of the strikers. They were in Vermont on a tour sponsored by the Vermont Labor Party.

Nevers was fired the day after his one and only shift and Collins was fired within five minutes
Armand Nevers and Harry Collins are two printers who worked for the Detroit News with over 67 years of service with the paper between them. They were two of the handful of strikers that were recalled. They returned to their jobs on April 1, and were both fired on May 1.

Why were Nevers and Collins fired? Because they had participated in a demonstration in front of the News building on Aug. 30, 1996. That day, they were part of a group of strikers led by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and other union leaders that sat down on a public sidewalk near the entrance to the building. After a short time, the union leaders were arrested and the strikers were asked to leave, which they did peacefully.

Nevers said that when he and Collins were recalled, they were given "tests" to see if they were competent to work on Macintosh computers. Both had used the machines for years before the strike. The people who passed the test got $17.30 an hour; those that failed got $12 an hour. The people who were active in the strike, as Nevers and Collins were, "failed" the test.

Collins said the people who "failed" the test reported to work to a vacant room filled with long tables and folding chairs. There was no work to be done there. It was mainly a holding area for people the paper wanted to be rid of.

Before they were fired, both Nevers and Collins did one shift in the main plant, working alongside the scabs that replaced them. They didn't have to do it for long, though. Nevers was fired the day after his one and only shift. Collins was fired within five minutes after his starting time. Both were told that their participation in the demonstration was the reason they were terminated.

Both men agreed that this strike didn't have to happen and that a combination of greed and bad-faith negotiating is to blame for it all.

Knight-Ridder and Gannett entered into a joint operating agreement (JOA) for the two papers in 1989. JOAs allow a city's competing newspapers to combine their business operations while maintaining separate editorial staffs. Newspaper owners get a profitable business monopoly, while preserving a semblance of editorial diversity.

After initial opposition, the unions agreed to job and wage cuts when the JOA took effect to ensure the survival of the papers. Management promised to reward the workers when the papers turned a profit.

When the two sides sat down to negotiate a new contract in 1995, there was no discussion of rewards. The papers were making money, about $54 million in 1994, but it wasn't enough to suit Gannett -- which has a 3-2 majority on the Detroit JOA governing board. Management wanted still more cost-cutting. The unions would make new proposals, but management wouldn't bargain. Take it or leave it, was the company's stance.

In June 1995, the company announced it wouldn't extend the old contract, a normal practice in labor negotiations. It was clear that the unions couldn't continue to negotiate in good faith without the protection of a work agreement or the company's commitment to make progress on a contract. A strike was the only option left.

Gannett and Knight-Ridder were ready. They had a battalion of private security guards in place around the newspapers within days. The non-union employees who stayed had been trained to keep the mechanical departments running. Reinforcements were flown in from other Gannett and Knight-Ridder papers. The papers never missed a day of publication.

Nevers and Collins narrated a slide show of photos from the demonstrations during the strike that taken by award-winning photojournalist Daymon Hartley. The confrontations between strikers and the Vance security guards and police captured by Hartley looked like a flashback to the great labor battles of the 1930s. During the first summer of the strike, striking workers were gassed, beaten and hauled off to jail with frightening regularity.

Gannett and Knight-Ridder may appear to have triumphed over the strikers, but it is a pyrrhic victory. A boycott of the papers by readers and advertisers has been devastating. Combined daily circulation of the two papers is down about half, from about 1,300,000 in 1989 to around 600,000 today. Estimated losses during the strike range from $100 million to $250 million. Still, both Gannett and Knight-Ridder made enough profits from their other papers to cover their losses in Detroit.

Nevers said that the only hope for the strikers is for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to act promptly on their charge that Gannett and Knight-Ridder failed to bargain in good faith. There's a slim chance that the NLRB may seek a federal injunction ordering the papers to take back everyone immediately. It's more likely that the dispute will be tied up in court for years until most of the affected workers retire, die or move on to other jobs.

Randolph T. Holhut is a freelance journalist and editor of "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books)

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Albion Monitor July 4, 1997 (

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