August 2012, Week 2


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Tue, 14 Aug 2012 22:30:16 -0400
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The Broken Table: Tale of a Newspaper Strike that
Didn't End Happily (Like in Newsies)
Book Review
Aug. 8, 2012

The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the
State of American Labor
By Chris Rhomberg
Russell Sage Foundation, 2012, 387 pp.

Lately the New York Timeshas
been chronicling the further contraction of the
newspaper trade and related job insecurity among print
journalists. In a June 4 report, entitled "The Undoing
of the Daily," Times readers learned that the much
respected Times-Picayune in New Orleans is not alone in
trying to stay afloat by publishing less than once a
day. Six other newspapers, in the United States and
Canada, have just announced plans to reduce their print
schedule and rely on web editions the rest of the time.
"Newspaper executives argue that printing and
delivering newspapers only on certain days will sharply
cut costs while at least preserving some of the paper

As the Times notes, "the decision to reduce print
papers is usually accompanied by cuts on the newsroom
side, as well." The quality of daily coverage, already
eroded due to widespread newsroom downsizing, will
further deteriorate for reasons the NYT spells out.
"Staff members at The Times-Picayune expect that about
one-third of the roughly 140-person newsroom will be
cut." Reporters "have been told that their priorities
will shift to writing for the web." According to one
past editor: "They want them to produce more blog posts
a day and not worry about putting things together in a
more thoughtful package. The Times-Picayune has a
sterling tradition of enterprising journalism. That
tradition is being thrown under the bus."

Also part of this unhappy trend are the Detroit News
and the Detroit Free Press, two papers now owned by the
Detroit Media Partnership. Since 2010, the News has
"printed Monday through Saturday but delivers papers
only on Thursday and Friday (with a special section
delivered with The Free Press on Sundays)." In the
mid-1990s, close coordination between the same two
papers--then owned by the Gannett media chain and
Knight Ridder, Inc. respectively--laid the groundwork
for labor's biggest media industry defeat in the last
several decades. When Detroit newspaper management
succeeded in throwing 2,500 employees "under the
bus"--by replacing them during a strike--it not only
sacrificed the quality of local journalism; it dealt a
grievous organizational blow to my own union, the
Newspaper Guild/CWA, one of six labor organizations
involved in that 583 day ordeal (and years of legal
skirmishing thereafter).

An Extreme Case?

In The Broken Table, Fordham University sociology
professor Chris Rhomberg provides valuable historical
context for this pivotal mid-1990s walkout. The bulk of
his book describes the obstacles that strikers faced,
how they tried to overcome them, and the consequences
of their defeat, locally and nationally. Rhomberg's
in-depth study of the Detroit newspaper strike should
be required reading for anyone attempting a newspaper
shutdown in the future--or staging a work-stoppage, of
any size, in any other venue where the employer has
deep pockets, lots of other revenue-producing
properties, and the same management-friendly,
private-sector labor relations machinery on its side.

By virtue of our steadily declining rate of major job
actions, the strike against theDetroit News and Free
Press was, as the author notes, "an extreme case." Some
might even view it as an outlier, harking back to an
earlier era of no-holds-barred industrial conflict in
Detroit. The walkout was "larger than 97 percent--and
longer than 99 percent--of all private-sector strikes
from 1984 to 2002." It also involved multiple
bargaining units aligning their contract expiration
dates and acting simultaneously against a common
employer, the Detroit Newspaper Agency. The product of
a controversial Justice Department-approved
joint-operating agreement, this corporate entity
allowed Knight Ridder and Gannett to merge their
production, circulation, advertising, accounting, and
marketing operations in the city, while maintaining
their separate newspaper brands.

Elsewhere in the same industry, a corresponding display
of coordination and unity within labor has frequently
been thwarted by craft union divisions. In Detroit, the
Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions (MCNU) that
successfully welded the strikers together covered
"white-collar professionals, blue-collar laborers, and
skilled crafts-persons"--a relatively rare occupational
mix on U.S. picket lines, now and in the past.

Siege Warfare in the Midwest

Yet the Detroit strike remained much a product of
recent labor relations trends, well-described by the
author, that have become even more pronounced in the
last decade of concession bargaining and declining
strike activity in the private sector. The Detroit
strike settled into the mode of siege warfare familiar
to those brave manufacturing workers who tried to
resist contract concessions on other Midwestern
battlefields in the 1980s and '90s. As the union-backed
alternative newspaper spawned by the strike explained
to readers of its inaugural issue, the conflict was
never really "about money or even about the number of
workers to be bought out or laid off."

According to the Detroit Sunday Journal, management was
demanding or had already implemented "policies that
would virtually wipe unions off the playing field by
denying representation to hundreds of employees or
denying unions the ability to negotiate wages and other
substantive issues." As Detroit Guild attorney Duane
Ice told Rhomberg:

After decades of bargaining nobody could recall any
instance when these employers or any other newspapers
in Detroit, had bargained to impasse and...basically
declared an end to collective bargaining. It meant the
unions had no role in the outcome. Basically, an
employer could go through the motions, declare impasse,
and say, "Well, here are the terms and conditions.
We're done." No less than Detroit strikers in the
mid-1990s, government employees in Wisconsin realized,
last year, where such an employer stance leads. So they
acted accordingly, taking to the streets and occupying
the state capitol, when their unions were similarly
menaced, unexpectedly, by GOP Governor Scott Walker,
after fifty years of public-sector contract
negotiations in the Badger state. Equivalent bad-faith
bargaining (and union-busting intent) triggered a
two-week strike by 45,000 Verizon workers not long

In the talks that have dragged on since that August
2011 walkout, Verizon has continued to seek pay,
benefit, and work rule concessions that would roll back
many decades of union progress. A management
declaration of impasse, whether legal or not, remains a
possibility, at which point telephone workers in the
Northeast could face the same choice as Detroit
newspaper workers seventeen years ago: to accept
"posted conditions" or escalate their resistance to
those takeaways, on the job, in the community, or back
on the picket line.

In Detroit, the path taken to resist labor cost
reductions and workplace restructuring was a work
stoppage. But it "never fully succeeded in halting the
production and distribution of the newspapers,"
Rhomberg concludes. Tacitly acknowledging their
inability to stop production, union leaders "relied
instead on circulation and advertising boycotts and on
their legal case" at the National Labor Relations Board
(NLRB). Whatever disruption and extra costs they had to
endure in Detroit, Gannett and Knight Ridder were both
secure in the knowledge that revenue generated by their
many other newspapers (both unionized and non-union)
would continue to flow their way.

Profiles in Rank-and-File Courage

Rhomberg begins his impressive case study with chapters
describing the new structure of newspaper industry
ownership and its adverse effects on labor relations
within media giants like Gannett, the changing
socioeconomic terrain of Detroit as a "union town," and
the "daily miracle" of how a newspaper is produced--a
process much changed since the heyday of national
unions involved in the strike.

Fortunately, The Broken Table is not just about the
larger forces reshaping newspaper workers lives, on the
job and in the community. The book also includes
memorable sketches of--and well deserved tributes
to--strike activists like Michigan Journalism Hall of
Famer Susan Watson, a Free Press features writer fired
for participating in civil disobedience at the News
building on Labor Day weekend in 1996; Barb Ingalls, an
auto worker's wife, who "had never been very involved
in her own union before the strike," but then became a
leader in community-labor outreach around the country
(work she continues today for anti-war and
labor-religion coalitions in Detroit); and Teamster
organizer Mike Zielinksi, who enlisted fifty locked-out
or fired union members in a Workers Justice Committee
that functioned as a "flying squad that could be
mobilized on short notice for any kind of action." (In
1999, Zielinksi was fired himself when, according to
Rhomberg, newly elected Teamster president James R.
Hoffa decided "to clean house of supporters of his
predecessor, Ron Carey, and bring the Detroit struggle
to an end.")

And, finally, there is mailroom worker Ben Solomon, who
we meet at the beginning and end of the book. Bloodied
but not bowed, he won a rare $2.5 million court
judgment against the Detroit newspapers and their
municipal government allies for conspiring to deprive
him and other strikers of their constitutional rights.
During a heavy-handed crackdown on mass picketing at a
printing plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan, Solomon
was pepper-sprayed, clubbed, then maced again and
jailed without treatment, in a shocking display of the
police brutality experienced, to a lesser degree, by
many other strikers.

Rhomberg's modern-day tale of worker solidarity and
personal transformation is no less dramatic or colorful
than the storyline of the musical Newsies. Mixing
fiction with a few facts about an actual strike a
century ago, Newsies has become a hugely popular NYC
stage production. It pits Manhattan newsboys against
Joseph Pulitzer, a publishing magnate who unilaterally
cuts their pay by raising the wholesale cost of their
papers. In the course of their work stoppage, the
strikers face beatings and arrests by the cops, suffer
divisions within their own ranks due to leadership
wavering, but succeed in launching a strike paper and
gaining the support of their counterparts elsewhere.
That labor unity, plus the friendly intervention of
Governor Theodore Roosevelt, leads to a favorable
settlement with Pulitzer. The strikers reclaim their
now more fairly compensated jobs--a Hollywood ending
for sure, albeit it on Broadway (and lifted from a
twenty-year-old Disney movie by the same name).

An adaptation of The Broken Table, however, is not
likely to be seen anytime soon, on stage or screen.
Rhomberg's narrative is more complex and the denouement
of the Detroit strike nothing to sing or dance about.

Let Down by the Law

In real-life newspaper strikes, politicians don't come
to your rescue, although many public officials in
Michigan were initially persuaded not to grant
interviews to newsroom scabs. In February 1997, after
nineteen months on the line, the Detroit unions made
unconditional offers to return to work. But the News
and Free Pressoffered to "take back only a fraction of
the striking workers, as new vacancies allowed,"
because they wouldn't send any of their hired scabs
packing. Four months later, an administrative law judge
(ALJ) from the NLRB upheld the unions' claim that the
walkout was an unfair labor practice strike. "The judge
ordered the companies to reinstate striking workers,
displacing, if necessary, the replacement workers and
making any strikers not reinstated eligible for back
pay." Two days after that encouraging decision, the
AFL-CIO hosted a belated demonstration of national
union solidarity with Detroit newspaper employees. More
than 60,000 union members marched, rallied, and cheered
the latest legal developments.

Unfortunately, the NLRB case appeal procedures are a
monument to "justice delayed, justice denied." The two
newspapers refused to comply with the ALJ's decision
and the Labor Board failed to get a federal judge to
issue "an interim injunction requiring that all
strikers be returned immediately to their jobs" while
litigation continued. A year later, in the summer of
1998, the Board in Washington, D.C. unanimously upheld
the ALJ's ruling, setting the stage for a further
company appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals. In the
meantime, more than 400 former strikers remained locked
out or fired (including five of the six local union
presidents involved).

$100 million in back pay was riding on the appellate
court's decision. On July 7, 2000, hopes for back pay
and reinstatement were dashed when the prior NLRB
rulings were overturned. Rhomberg describes what
happened next:

Deprived of their legal leverage, the unions were
forced to accept contracts on management's terms. The
last of the six unions settled in December, 2000, and,
more than five years after it began, the Detroit
newspaper strike was over....The agreements offered no
amnesty provisions for fired strikers, including
prominent writers and columnists who had participated
in non-violent civil disobedience. The newspapers
refused to take those employees back, and further legal
appeals went on for several more years. Finally, most
of the individual strike-related civil rights suits
were dismissed or settled out of court.

In one other not legally insignificant footnote to the
strike, President George W. Bush named a new chairman
to the NLRB in 2002. He chose Robert Battista, the
Michigan attorney who served as lead counsel for the
News and Free Press in their ultimately successful
defense against bad-faith bargaining charges.

As Rhomberg notes, the Detroit newspapers did pay a
price for "their scorched earth policy toward the
strikers in a community that placed a high value on
unionism." He estimates their direct strike-related
losses to be $130 million, because a third of all
subscribers walked away too. "Circulation fell at eight
times the rate for the industry as a whole between 1995
and 1999, and dozens of veteran journalists left the
papers and the city, taking with them years of
knowledge and public memory." In 2005, after nearly
seven decades in Detroit, Knight Ridder sold the Free
Press to Gannett. The latter then abandoned Detroit
too, after unloading both papers on a national suburban
newspaper chain called MediaNews Group, Inc. By 2011,
MNG had 500,000 fewer readers than the News and Free
Press did when the previous owners tamed the unions in

Some members of the inevitable strike diaspora--union
activists who refused or were unable to return to
work--"went on to pursue their version of justice in
various ways," Rhomberg reports. Among them are Guild
members, Teamsters, printers, and others who remain
active to this very day as union newspaper editors or
writers, labor organizers, or solidarity campaigners

In 1999, the Sunday Journal--launched as a
forty-eight-page weekly tabloid for Detroit readers
boycotting the two struck papers--ceased publication.
In its first year of operation, the Journal reached
peak circulation of 300,000, unprecedented success for
a labor-backed strike paper. But as former strikers
were called back to the News orFree Press or left town
for journalism jobs in other places, the Journal's
coverage shrunk, its circulation declined, union
financing was curtailed, and the paper died.

The Journal wasn't alone in not living to see the
paltry contract settlements finally reached in late
2000, under duress and after labor's disheartening
legal defeat. At the better-late-than-never AFL-CIO
rally in June 1997, MCNU leader Al Derey brandished a
list of more than a dozen strikers--printers, press
operators, reporters, and others--who had died from
various causes during the first two years of the
walkout. To rousing cheers, Derey declared that "not
one of them crossed the line!" But "for those and
others like them," Rhomberg sadly notes, "their rights
were truly scattered to the winds."

Steve Early worked as a union organizer and strike
coordinator for the Communications Workers of America
for twenty-seven years. He has been free-lance
contributor to daily newspapers since 1965 and
currently belongs to the Pacific Media Workers Guild,
TNG/CWA Local 39521 in San Francisco. He is the author,
most recently, of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, from
Haymarket Books.


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