The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Detroit Newspaper Strike

Dec 31, 1995

For almost 4 months, a bitter and sometimes violent strike has dominated labor news in Detroit. It was provoked when Detroit’s two major bourgeois papers, the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, began to unilaterally impose new conditions of work after the old contracts expired. The old contracts had covered 2750 workers organized in six different unions, according to their particular jobs.

Ordinarily, both papers pretend to be favorable to the concerns of workers and their unions. A few months before the strike, the Free Press even carried an editorial calling on Congress to pass legislation making it illegal for a corporation permanently to replace strikers. Moreover, the two papers have long pretended to be competitors.

But, with the strike, the papers themselves tossed aside all this pretense. From the beginning, they have presented a single, unified stance to the unions, not only demanding sizeable concessions, but also replacing the strikers and threatening to make this permanent.

Of course, the union movement has grown used to companies’ demanding concessions; over the last decade and a half, many unions have themselves argued to the workers that it was necessary to accommodate these demands so as to ensure the "health" of "their" company. In fact, the unions at the two newspapers had already given up a range of concessions when the two newspapers proclaimed that their continued existence depended on it. In 1989, the unions agreed to changes which ended up costing them 1,000 jobs. In 1992, they agreed to a "temporary" 3-year wage freeze. But when 1995 came along, the papers were rolling in profit; nonetheless they continued to demand even greater concessions.

The papers refused to reinstate the annual raise geared to seniority for the 500 editorial employees represented by the Newspaper Guild—the writers and other people working in and around the newsroom. In its place, the papers proposed to institute a system of merit raises. Management would decide each year who deserved a raise—and how much they deserved—and who didn’t deserve any raise at all. In the event that any worker might have taken "merit" at face value, the papers quickly dispelled that illusion; they unilaterally instituted "merit" raises and then gave out a few. To be more exact, they withheld raises from many people, including from a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist. The janitors are also represented by the Guild. The papers proposed to subcontract out all 100 of their jobs to a low-wage employer.

As for the 2100 workers who make up the bulk of the papers’ employees, those who work in the printing plants and those who prepare and deliver the papers for distribution—the newspapers proposed a series of rule changes which would have resulted in increased intensity of work, further big decreases in the number of jobs, and the reduction of many full-time jobs to part-time, with a cut of $8 in their hourly pay rate.

There were specific demands which affected one group of workers or another, but what was constant in all of them was the high-handed, take-it-or-leave-it manner in which they were presented. The papers made it clear that effectively their first "offer" was their final offer.

The papers dragged out negotiations until the old contracts expired in April. The unions set a new deadline for July, and workers continued working, effectively under the old contracts. But as the July deadline approached, the newspapers refused to extend them further. They began unilaterally to impose some of their earlier "proposals."

On July 13, the workers finally walked out.

"Return to Work, or Else..."

Months before the strike started, it was clear the newspapers were preparing for a long strike.

The day the strike started, the two papers jointly announced they would continue production—of one single joint edition, put out by the two supposed competitors. They flooded the TV with ads proclaiming that the papers would publish as usual. Within a few days, they had everything in place they needed to produce articles, do the highly skilled work in the printing plants and maneuver the large semitrailers which carry the first rounds of the deliveries around the area. The papers had earlier settled contracts with the unions representing the few skilled workers required to maintain and repair the machinery. Thus, they were legally prohibited from striking. A few older writers never went out on strike—in general, those who had refused to join the Guild, when it had been formed. But most of the work on the papers, whether editorial or production was carried out by management and by people brought in from the two national newspaper chains which own the News and the Free Press. Bulk deliveries as well as guard duty were handled by some of the 1200 thugs they had called in from so-called "security" agencies which specialize in breaking strikes.

For the first seven weeks, the two papers were able to put out only one single joint paper, in only one edition, in place of the multiple editions both papers ordinarily would have put out each day. This edition obviously depended on a lot of canned articles from the two parent chains and wire service reports. At the level of physical appearance, the paper was clearly inferior to what had been produced before. As for the number of copies, the two papers almost certainly weren’t turning out even half of their usual joint Sunday run of 1.2 million copies. And a large part of what was produced was certainly never delivered, ending up in dumps or burned by the newspaper companies themselves.

But, quite obviously, none of those things were major considerations for the two papers. Their goal was not to use this new work force on a permanent basis, but to prove to the striking workers that they had no chance, that they could lose their jobs. Almost as soon as the bare-bones of distribution was reestablished, the papers began to bring pressure on the workers to return. The first move came when 30 reporters and editors issued a public letter, pronouncing themselves ready to return to work and calling on other Guild members to do the same so that negotiations could resume—the newspapers had insisted they would not negotiate so long as the strike continued. The letter had only a small impact. But it was obvious that at least a part of the Guild questioned the wisdom of the strike, and as subsequent events were to show, it was even a sizeable part. The newspapers stepped up the pressure. Four weeks into the strike, the writers were told that if they didn’t come back, their jobs might not be there for them when they did come back. The Free Press spokesperson, in announcing the ultimatum, mentioned that the writers would have to quit their union to come back. By three weeks later, about 30 per cent of the writers had returned to work—or had never gone out. The papers then upped the ante: they set a date by which the writers must return to work or lose their jobs. As if to highlight the point, the papers set the day after Labor Day as the appointed day.

In an interview he gave to another paper in the Gannett chain, Detroit News publisher Bob Giles explained the ultimatums in this way: "We’re going to hire a whole new work force and go on without unions, or they can surrender unconditionally and salvage what they can." The quote, of course, was given wide circulation by the other media in the Detroit area.

Interestingly enough, only one writer returned to work the day after Labor Day.

Tearing Up the "Gentlemen’s Agreement"

Of course, this is not the first strike in which a company that had been struck ran production, gave ultimatums to strikers, and even fired strikers. Already in 1981, Reagan had done that with the air traffic controllers organized by PATCO. But PATCO, while shocking, didn’t necessarily ring alarm bells for the unions. The unions looked at Reagan himself as the one responsible for the action, and they considered him to be some kind of maverick. Moreover, the strike itself was against the law; and there have always been harsh penalties for so-called "essential" government workers who strike.

In the long decades since World War II, labor-business relations were governed by a kind of "gentlemen’s agreement." If a union and its members followed the formalities to make it a "legal" strike, the struck company would not ordinarily run production; in any case, it would not replace and then fire strikers. In exchange, the unions respected the needs of the company—for example, to keep furnaces tended, etc., to prevent damage to the property. They struck only in the times designated by the contract, ordinarily only at its expiration every two or three years; and they respected the laws which forbade them to extend a strike beyond the category of workers who were involved in the contract. Strikes were often long and even acrimonious, but they weren’t marked by much activity, and they certainly didn’t serve to bring other workers out. They were essentially little more than waiting games, with each side trying to find a way to overcome the economic loss they were undergoing. Workers often took other jobs—or vacations if they had saved enough money. Picket lines were symbolic—and minimal. They were the announcement that both sides had agreed to respect the strike.

Of course, there were exceptions, and this unwritten agreement certainly did not hold in those situations where companies had not accepted a union. But in general, the "gentlemen’s agreement" was respected by the important industries in the country and by the unions.

In 1983-84, Phelps-Dodge, a major copper producer, broke the agreement, running production, firing its workers and ultimately breaking the strike and the union. Since then, an increasing number of corporations have begun to experiment with the possibilities of continuing production and replacing workers on strike—in some cases, moving legally to get rid of the union.

Until very recently, however, it was still a somewhat marginal section of the capitalist class which went this far. The companies which began to resume production were often smaller ones and/or located in small towns or semi-rural areas. In general, the corporations were still prudent when it came to challenging the larger, more powerful industrial unions like the UAW (United Auto, Aerospace and Agricultural Implements Workers) or the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters).

But then came the two Caterpillar strikes, one in 1992, one still continuing today. In both strikes, Caterpillar replaced strikers, resumed production and let it be known directly or indirectly that the strikers’ jobs were at risk. Faced with that threat, the union ordered its members back to end the first strike on company terms. Once back inside, the union tried to organize a slowdown, only to have management fire dozens of union activists. This provoked the second strike, which may now be on its last legs. Short of a complete capitulation by the union, it’s not at all clear that the strikers will get their jobs back. While the Caterpillar plants themselves were located in smaller towns, Caterpillar can hardly be called marginal. It is, and has long been, the world’s leading manufacturer of agricultural and earth moving equipment, and highly profitable. Its workforce was organized by the UAW, one of the strongest unions in the U.S.

An Attempt to Break Labor in the Heart of the Labor Movement

Thus, we come to the current newspaper strike. One of the most significant things about it is the fact that it is taking place in Detroit. The two newspapers have shown themselves ready to directly attack their unions in the city where organized labor has long appeared to be the strongest. On the symbolic level, it is the only city, for example, where the unions continue every single year to organize a demonstration on Labor Day. On the 2practical level, it is an industrial center, one with a high level of union membership; on a percentage basis, the Detroit metropolitan area is more unionized than any other large metropolitan area in the country.

These two newspapers did not just fall into this situation, or did they decide on their own to challenge the union movement in Detroit. First of all, they are both owned by national newspaper chains. The News is owned by Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country, controlling 93 daily newspapers, including 11 it bought up in the last year alone. The Free Press is owned by Knight-Ridder, the second largest chain in the country, controlling 28 daily papers. On the question of total circulation, Knight-Ridder is much closer to Gannett.

Moreover, at least at the beginning of the strike, the two papers had open support from the biggest corporations and banks in the area which continued to advertise in the papers. Certainly, they didn’t get much of a return for their advertising money. With the press run down substantially, the papers reached few people. And practically from the beginning, the widespread popular hostility to the "scab" newspaper made some advertisers drop their ads. But the ads were a way for other companies to demonstrate their support.

At least a part of the bourgeoisie probably wanted to see what would happen.

The Unions Look for Ways to Respond

From the beginning, this strike was more militant, and certainly much more active than anything seen in the Detroit area for decades. Picket lines were larger, strikers took longer tours on them. Beyond that, the six unions involved set up roving squads to carry out a range of different activities. Some are aimed at interfering with the distribution of papers: newspaper boxes and trucks. Some are aimed at getting the support of other workers to boycott the papers, not to buy them, cancel subs; some, at getting advertisers to cancel ads or stores to discontinue carrying the papers. As opposed to the usual manner of handling these kinds of things—that is, transmitting information via the Metropolitan AFL-CIO Council—the unions have sent squads of their members to reinforce the official communications, going to shopping centers, plant gates, other unions’ meetings, churches and neighborhood groups, university classes, etc.

In the early days of the strike, many other workers, almost as a reflex, stopped buying the papers. But once the unions called for a boycott and publicized it, sales in most plants dropped steeply. Individual union activists in a number of places took it upon themselves to stop whatever distribution there was, to get buttons or T-shirts from the striking unions and sell them in their plants, etc. Judging from the neighborhoods, large numbers of people apparently called in to cancel home delivery.

At the beginning, other unions responded with the usual financial support and statements of encouragement unions give to each other in difficult strikes. But when the newspapers began to threaten the strikers with firing and to demand they give up union membership as a precondition for returning to work, other unions began to organize a series of actions, in some cases calling on their memberships—and not just the union apparatus—to participate in the strike activities.

The other unions began to intervene widely over the Labor Day weekend. On Saturday afternoon, they organized a march to the Detroit News printing plant in suburban Sterling Heights where the Sunday joint edition was being printed. Several thousand unionists, led by the leaders of most of the important unions in town, finished the march by staying overnight at the plant to prevent the Sunday edition from being trucked out. Several weeks earlier, strikers had been viciously attacked by Sterling Heights police. In the early hours of the evening, when only a few hundred pickets were on hand, Sterling Heights police moved in with another attack. But this time, pickets were prepared to meet the charge, and it was the police who retreated. As hundreds and hundreds more workers began to pour in, the police completely backed off. Even though some papers eventually were distributed very late on Sunday, the massive turn out had effectively stopped distribution—for one day, in any case.

On Monday, the Labor Day parade, fifty thousand strong, demonstrated through the streets of downtown Detroit, with large contingents ending up at the headquarters of the two papers in downtown Detroit; that night several hundred strikers and other workers they had talked to during the parade went back to the plant to try to stop the Tuesday edition from coming out. With many fewer numbers, they were less successful in shutting down distribution, but they did demonstrate their readiness to fight with the police.

From that point until today, the unions have continued to organize combative actions, which they call on other workers to join, especially on Saturday night into Sunday morning. Every weekend, newspaper workers and their supporters have massed at printing plants or distribution sites in an attempt to cost the papers the distribution of their biggest and most lucrative edition, the Sunday paper. Parts of the UAW have been involved, as well as a range of other smaller unions. The first and biggest confrontations came at the printing plants, in Sterling Heights, and then in downtown Detroit. But when the courts granted an injunction limiting pickets at Sterling Heights, the unions decided to take the fight to the distribution centers. For weeks, there has been a kind of guerilla warfare going on, with four or five hundred strikers and other unionists assembling early Saturday night at a prearranged place, then waiting until the papers commit themselves to the distribution center they will try to use that evening. In the course of these actions, the distribution centers have come to take on, we could say, a very littered appearance. And it’s at these centers that the strikers have been able to revenge themselves a little bit on the guards hired from Vance Security, real goons who have followed and violently attacked pickets when they got a few alone. In general, although there has been some fighting with the police, more commonly, there is a kind of stand-off, with neither the police nor the strikers ready to push to a real confrontation.

Obviously, the unions continue to organize more traditional actions: fund-raising activities like dinners and dances, for example. These were organized by local unions for their members, other workers from nearby workplaces and anyone else ready to make a donation, with the strikers usually invited for free or a nominal cost. Union meetings invite speakers from the striking unions and take up collections. So do a wide range of community organizations and churches.

But what has given this strike its character so far is the fact that other unions have made some attempt to bring their members to join the activities of someone else’s strike.

Certainly, not all the unions have been active. In fact, the biggest bulk of the activity has been concentrated in only a few unions, and even there, not in all their locals. Moreover, if there has been a response by workers not part of the union apparatus, it has not been a big response. Nonetheless, there is a core of union activists and other workers who have regularly participated in a range of strike activities. There are undoubtedly many more who take it upon themselves in their own neighborhoods to interfere in some way or another with distribution.

Chrysler Didn’t Like "Irresponsible Journalism"!

Once the confrontations became more widespread, and other unions began to participate in the strike activities themselves, major companies backed off a bit. On the pretext that it didn’t like the way a Detroit News writer had handled a story about Kirk Kerkorian’s attempt to buy out Chrysler, Chrysler issued the following statement to the News, which it then made public: "From now on, you, your editors, your journal cease to exist as far as we are concerned." Shortly thereafter, supposedly stung by an article the Free Press had run about a safety defect which has long been reported in the media, Chrysler took a similar stance toward the Free Press. The big banks and other companies began to withdraw their advertising from the two papers, and then most of the major stores fell in line. Certainly they are not supporting the strikers—two of the companies which withdrew are major supermarket chains which themselves have gone through recent bitter strikes. But they all seem to be calculating that advertising in the papers is a lost proposition right now, with circulation down and with popular hostility to the papers up. Apparently, other corporations are less ready to be so openly associated with them.

It’s obvious that distribution has been severely reduced—and if anything, is being reduced still more. The fact that distribution of Sunday papers—the thickest edition with the largest total subscription—can be handled out of a few distribution centers testifies to that. The papers themselves claim it is down only 25 per cent. But both papers refused to have these distribution figures audited in October, when newspapers by law are supposed to submit to an outside audit, in order to ensure that advertisers are getting their money’s worth.

Finally, the strike has certainly reverberated through political milieus. Of course, there are politicians like Detroit City Council President Maryann Mahaffey who regularly support difficult strikes, and they did so this time too. But what is more indicative of the climate is the fact that the Sterling Heights City Council reversed itself, forcing its City Manager to resign, after originally applauding his decision to take money from the two Detroit papers, in exchange for police protection of the Sterling Heights plant. Sterling Heights eventually received $620,000. But as the Saturday night protests continued, the cops pronounced themselves worn out and the Chief of Police began to say his department couldn’t deal with the situation any more. The City Council decided it needed to blame someone; someone turned out to be the City Manager who had openly expressed his hostility to the strikers.

Up until now, the strikers, themselves, seem to have a good morale. Apparently most of the workers went into the strike with the expectation that it would be a long one, and they had prepared themselves for it, both financially and morally. When one of the union leaders said, in a meeting, that the strike could easily last into the Spring, it didn’t surprise, or even seem particularly to bother those assembled.

Of course, they are the active ones. With the others, there is no real way to tell, other than the fact that few strikers have so far they gone back. While 40 per cent of the 500 editorial workers have returned—and did so relatively early—only 100 of the remaining 2250 strikers have gone back. Moreover, in the early days of November, 8 of the 28 electricians who were working under their contract, walked out to join the strike. They said there were others who expected to come out also. In fact, legally, they don’t have the right to do this. They said, however, that they had "weighed the consequences", that management "would just have to do what it was going to do", but that "we have to live with ourselves" and that they couldn’t do that if they continued to work during the strike. Obviously, eight more strikers won’t tip the balance in this strike, but to the extent that their action testifies to the desire of other workers to join the fight, it shows that the strike certainly still has some prospects.

What Prospects for the Strike?

The unions, so far, have led a very militant strike. In the face of a serious attack, they have responded, proposing and doing what the workers apparently were ready to do.

But the workers themselves have exercised no real control over this strike. They meet altogether infrequently—even if they have met altogether, which in itself is more than what is usual in a strike. The real control over the strike, the real decision making about its activities lies with the Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions, and more broadly with the Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO Council, and to a lesser extent with some of the leaders of the UAW who have been most active in the strike.

When the workers don’t control their strike, a union leadership can find the ways to end a fight, when the workers still want to continue. But even if this weren’t a risk in this particular strike, it is indispensable that workers control their own strike. When you are leading a fight, in order to know what to propose, you have to know what people are ready to do and how far they are ready to take their fight. But the only real way to know that is to bring all the workers together to discuss every aspect of their strike—and to do so regularly. They have to make the decisions themselves.

For example, on the question of the injunction: there seem to be a sizeable number of the most active strikers who want to find a way to challenge the injunction. On Saturday nights, they talk about it, wishing their union leaders would decide to challenge it. Others talk about challenging it themselves with a few forces. In fact, if the injunction is to be challenged, large numbers of workers must be ready to do it. There are real problems involved: the unions face high penalties if they violate an injunction and can’t, by the force of their numbers and militancy, convince the courts it would be better to forget the whole matter. (The UMWA, for example, was recently levied a fine so high that it would not have had the means to pay it and would have lost all its buildings, etc.) Could this current injunction be challenged? In order for the strikers to know that, they have to discuss the risks openly, they have to find out what forces they really have—that is, how many people are really ready to take on those risks.

To take this strike as far as it is possible to go, its leaders have to rest on the decisions made by the ranks—and not just the original decision to go out, or another decision to stay out. People have to make the specific decisions about all the daily problems facing their strike.

Up until now, the unions have made this strike into a political issue in Detroit, but without really giving themselves that goal. The very fact of trying to cost the papers money has brought them to take news of their strike far and wide, and even to ask other workers to actively support their fight. But their main goal still is to cost the papers as much money as they can. Of course, that’s a factor in a strike. But it’s not the only factor. And in a time like this, when the corporations line up one after the other to exact more concessions from their own workforce, it may not even be the main factor. It’s equally or more necessary that the other corporations be made to fear that their own workers will join in this struggle and, by so doing, raise the possibility of making their own struggles. The big corporations must be made to fear social unrest.

Look what happened when the strike seemed to be widening, gaining active support and attracting the interest of other workers around the area. Many of the corporations pulled their ads.

But to really make a strike a political fact, you have to make that your goal. You have to call on other workers to join you, to make your strike their strike, to see that your problems are their problems. You have to encourage others to make their own fights.

We’ve already seen how some workers spontaneously searched for ways to support this strike. The unions can put pressure on the owners of the two newspapers by making the other corporations see this strike as a big liability. Feeling the threat of their own workers’ mobilization, they can decide to exert a real pressure on the owners of the newspapers.

Such an outcome would be important, and not just for the newspaper workers, but for everyone. It could reinforce the morale of the whole working class, making the situation and the climate more favorable for other struggles. It could be the beginning of a more generalized fight.