“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx
Nov 9, 2015
With the exception of a commemoration organized by supporters and some of the remaining strikers, a twenty-year anniversary of an important strike in the Detroit metropolitan area came and went, without a mention in the Detroit media.
Nonetheless, it was a big event, the outcome of which has weighed on working class morale for 20 years – including on newer workers who know nothing about the strike.
In July of 1995, more than 2700 workers with six newspaper unions in Detroit began a strike against that media. The Detroit Newspaper Agency (DNA), publisher of the two major Detroit newspapers, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News, forced the strike by demanding that workers accept hundreds of job eliminations and drastic cuts in wages, benefits and working conditions, or else.
From the beginning, the strikers, who included janitors, pressmen, drivers, printers, mailers, typographers, carriers, engravers and reporters, had the advantage of their own militancy. Picket lines were larger. Strikers took longer tours on them. Strikers set up roving squads to carry out a range of different activities: some aimed at interfering with the distribution of the newspapers; some aimed at getting the support of other workers to boycott the papers and cancel subs; some aimed at reaching the public at shopping centers, plant gates, other union meetings, some in the neighborhood of newspaper executives, embarrassing them!
The newspaper strikers came out by the hundreds, barricaded News and Free Press plants and offices, stopped newspaper trucks. They “got creative” in many ways to stop scab papers, and put their strike in front of other workers and showed their strike’s vitality. The Detroit area began to recall its fighting union heritage. Workers from all over paid attention to this strike and became active in different ways.
At the beginning, other unions responded with the usual financial support and statements of encouragement that 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 strike activities.
On Labor Day weekend, the other unions began to intervene more widely in the strike. On the Saturday afternoon of that weekend, they organized a march to the Detroit News printing plant in suburban Sterling Heights, where the Sunday joint edition of the paper was being printed. Several thousand unionists, led by leaders of the most important unions in the region, finished the march by staying overnight at the plant to prevent the Sunday edition from being trucked out. The Sterling Heights police, who in earlier weeks had viciously attacked the strikers, were forced to retreat, along with police from area cities who had been called in as reinforcements.
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. The Detroit newspaper strike had the potential to become a general anti-concessions movement.
But if the workers were mobilized and ready to fight, the union leaderships were not ready to risk having the strike surge beyond legal bounds, which included the possibility of these leaderships and their policies being left in the wake. When the inevitable court injunctions ruled against mass picketing, union leaders advised workers to obey. Instead of continuing the workers’ mobilization in an out-and-out contest of strength, where workers had their best advantage, the union leaders gradually channeled workers’ hope into the legal wilderness of the courts and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rulings, where the workers were at a great disadvantage.
There are many lessons gained from this strike. The Detroit Newspaper Agency, which was in fact part of a broader media monopoly, used this attack against the Detroit newspaper workers as the opening salvo to attack newspaper workers across the country. When union leaders here gave up the fight, they doomed newspaper workers elsewhere. In the short run, these newspapers took a big hit, so in the long run major newspapers could use the length of this strike to scare other workers and impose draconian concessions against newspaper workers throughout the country.
The decision by top union leadership to depend on the courts rather than the collective power of workers derailed the strike. A core of worker militants sustained a kind of guerilla fight against the DNA for nearly three years after the union leaderships accepted defeat and ordered a return to work under the company’s conditions. These strikers were not organized enough in advance of this strike; they had too much confidence in union leaders at the beginning. By the time they realized, it was too late to pull the rest of the strikers beyond the unions’ policy.
Nevertheless, the newspaper strike brought to the fore a large number of worker militants and gave them a rich experience which many of them carried into other workplaces. There has been nothing on that level since then. It is an experience that needs to be part of every worker’s heritage.