The Spark

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

The Detroit newspaper strike:
A missed chance to turn the tide

Jun 20, 2005

Ten years ago this July 9, newspaper unions in Detroit began the DNA (Detroit Newspaper Agency) strike. It was a militant strike that could have been a pivot point in the struggle against the concessions battering the working class. Instead it turned out to foreshadow a decade of continued losses.

The strike was forced on workers by the Detroit Newspaper Agency (DNA), publisher of the two major Detroit newspapers, the Free Press and the News. The DNA demanded that workers accept hundreds of job eliminations and drastic cuts in wages, benefits, and working conditions. The DNA intended to either break the unions or to reduce them to shadows.

From the beginning, the strikers had the advantage of their own militancy, plus the active support of workers from other unions, plus the sympathy of vast numbers of workers in the Detroit area, a traditional union town, home of the United Auto Workers.

The newspaper strikers came out by the hundreds, barricaded News and Free Press plants and offices, stopped newspaper trucks, and at first were so numerous on the picket lines that local police were unable to get the newspapers through. Strikers "got creative" in many ways to stop scab papers, put their strike in front of other workers and show their strike's vitality. The Detroit area began to recall its fighting union heritage.

But if the workers were mobilized and showing their readiness to fight, the union leaderships were not ready to risk having the strike surge beyond legal bounds. When the inevitable court injunctions ruled against mass picketing, the leaderships advised workers to obey. Instead of continuing the workers' mobilization in an out-and-out contest of strength, where the workers had their best advantage, the union leaders gradually channeled workers' hopes into the legal wilderness of courts and NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) rulings – where the workers are at great disadvantage.

Early in the strike, when it was clear that rank and file auto workers felt great support for the strike, perhaps readying themselves to join a battle against concessions, the national UAW leadership called for "support" for the strike only in passive terms. UAW workers were asked to give donations to the newspaper strikers and to cancel their newspaper subscriptions. Workers were seldom even called on to reinforce newspaper picket lines, and the union structures buried any notion of engaging auto workers in a simultaneous struggle against their own concessions.

This strike had the potential to become a general anti-concessions movement. When that didn't happen, the working class was thrown backward for a decade.

Nonetheless, the newspaper strike brought to the fore a large number of worker militants and gave them a rich experience. A core of these militants sustained a guerrilla fight against the DNA for nearly three years after the unions officially accepted defeat and returned to work under the company's conditions.

The Detroit newspaper strikers gained a fund of experience which can yet enrich the working class, if it's put to use in new struggles.