Labor's Bitter Defeat in Detroit

— Barbara Ingalls

The Broken Table:
The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor
By Chris Rhomberg
Russell Sage Foundation, 2012, 387 pages, $47.50 paperback.

A GREEN THUNDERSTORM lit the Detroit sky on the evening of July 1, 1995. The air literally turns green from ozone, which hangs in the air until the thunder, lightning and rain begin. On the fourth floor of the Detroit News building on Lafayette Street in downtown Detroit, the green light added to our anxiety and excitement.

The clock was ticking, the management team of Gannett and Knight Ridder, publishers of the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, were meeting with the Council of Newspaper Unions and the mayor of Detroit, Dennis Archer, in theory trying to stop a strike that would kick off at 8 pm, short of a last minute agreement.

That agreement never happened, and 2,500 employees poured out of the Detroit building and from the suburban Sterling Heights “North Plant” into the streets and into labor history. The strike (later to be classified as a lock-out) ultimately involved unions from all over the world, and would last five and a half years.

Chris Rhomberg’s The Broken Table argues that Gannett and Knight Ridder had no real intention of settling the dispute, that they planned very far in advance for the strike, and had every intention of breaking the unions in Detroit. This carefully researched book examines the plans, the money spent, the politicians manipulated and the workers who were nearly crushed by this ugly action.

This is a book about how Gannett and Knight Ridder “broke the table” of the bargaining process in their quest for control. Rhomberg reaches back to the roots of the strike, when Gannett bought the Detroit News in 1985 and to 1989, when a Joint Operating Agreement (JOA, which merged the business operations of the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press while preserving separate editorial entities) was enacted.

This book examines the minutia of legal actions and briefs. The author dug through what must have been mountains of paperwork, interviewed hundreds of strikers, supporters, lawyers, politicians and memorably, one of management’s architects of the strike, John Jaske, who isn’t one bit sorry that he nearly destroyed two newspapers and thousands of lives.

What Was At Stake

In 1995, newspapers were a good bet for investment. The internet was beginning to emerge, but newspaper bosses scoffed at the idea that anything would take the place of a paper on the doorstep.

In corporate boardrooms, there was no thought of giving workers some of the giant profits that were rolling in. Staffing had been slashed systematically for the last 20 years as technology modernized newspaper productions, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy shareholders and boardrooms. To maximize profits, the unions had to go.

In 1992, the Detroit Newspaper Agency — the business entity created by the JOA to handle production of the papers — began laying the groundwork for the strike, speaking to other papers around the United States (paying special attention to the successful strike at the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner), developing a playbook. Importantly, they involved the City of Sterling Heights, home of the printing plant, where some of the most publicized and violent actions in the strike would occur.

Readers who were involved in the strike will shake their heads in anger as they read what everybody suspected all along: that there would be no real negotiating, that the violence was choreographed, that the process was useless. All the players are interviewed in the book, including John Jaske, chief negotiator for the Detroit Newspaper Agency (DNA) and the Detroit News, Tim Kelleher, head of labor relations for the Agency, and Frank Vega, Chief Executive Officer of the DNA.

The book explains, in excruciating detail, the long and involved legal battle. The unions (workers were represented by The Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions, comprising two CWA locals, the Newspaper Guild and Detroit Typographical Union; two GCIU locals representing pressmen and engravers; and two Brotherhood of Teamster locals representing Mailers, Circulation and Distribution) early on decided their strategy was to take the fight to the courts, hoping the National Labor Relations Board would provide the remedy.

In many ways that strategy was successful, as the unions won ruling after ruling — until the end, when the company’s method of appealing every ruling ended up in their favor. One can only guess at the stacks of paper Rhomberg combed through and the miles of videotape that the company took in their effort to discredit and fire worker after worker.

In the end, the courts failed the unions too, completing what Rhomberg called “a steady shift of the law from its New Deal origins to the ascendant anti-union regime.” The loss in the courts abruptly cut off continued opposition, from consumer boycotts to continued direct action waged by the “Workers Justice Committee,” a group formed of strikers who were dedicated to waging war on the company in the streets and in the community. The strike paper, The Sunday Journal, ceased operations in November of 1999.

Strike Road Warriors

Rhomberg also spoke to countless strikers and supporters, union leaders and community supporters. The book begins and ends with the story of Teamster Ben Solomon, who was brutally beaten on Labor Day, 1995. While this is an academic book about the process that led to the strike and how it played out over the years, it’s also a testimony from many of the strikers who were most active.

I am one of those people. I am a “printer” at the newspapers, a member of Detroit Typographical Union #18 (Detroit’s oldest union) and I was an active striker until I got my job back in 1999. During that time, I took part in a group called The Workers Justice Committee, who carried out a corporate campaign, targeting Gannett and Knight Ridder board members.

We also went door to door in countless Detroit area communities, making sure the circulation of the papers was kept down and that the oft-repeated lie “The strike is over” was explained and debunked. Much like the weekly strike newspaper The Sunday Journal, it was an effort funded and executed long after the need had become apparent.

The decision by the union leadership to pursue the strike in the courts rather than in the streets ran counter to what many of the rank and file wished to do. When we were set free to fight the company, we were able to remind the public that the strike continued on.

I spent a nearly ridiculous amount of time in a red van with a group of strikers, driving up and down the East Coast, visiting places like Greenwich, Connecticut and the Harvard Business School in our quest for support from the board of directors. Every we were met by supportive union members from every union in the United States, whose generosity and solidarity sustained us, and can bring me to tears even to this day as I type these words.

It would have been better if the union presidents were as militant as the rank and file, but they were not. We can’t know what the outcome would have been if they had led the fight instead of disappearing into the courtroom. I do know that Gannett and Knight Ridder spent millions upon millions of dollars trying to crush us. The union movement could never have outspent them, but we could have made better use of the money we did have.

In the end we lost the court battles and the strike, but many of us got our jobs back, we have unions in place and in fact, just ratified a pretty decent contract, gaining the first raises in Gannett outlets in five years.

Detroit newspaper strikers are a loyal bunch, we keep in touch as much as possible, considering the diaspora that is a legacy of the strike. This book has caused a great deal of anxiety in that community; one striker described it as causing delayed stress reaction.

The first time I read it, I cried a lot — and got very angry, having to go to work and face many of the players in the book. I had to put the book aside for a while, revisiting it until I could read the whole thing. It was worth my time.

The Broken Table traces management’s blueprint for derailing one of the most important labor struggles of the late 20th century. It is not, however, a book about the strikers. That one is still to be written.

Rhomberg recently argued on CNN that “America would be better off with more strikes” (http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/10/opinion/rhomberg-unions-strikes). In an age of “judicial repression” and declining de-unionization, we need to look critically at the past as we plan for the future.

Note

For coverage of the Detroit newspaper strike and lockout in Against the Current during the period, articles are archived at:

For coverage of the Detroit newspaper strike and lockout in Against the Current during the period, articles are archived at:

www.solidarity-us.org/777

www.solidarity-us.org/954

www.solidarity-us.org/2321

www.solidarity-us.org/2500

May/June 2013, ATC 164

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