Detroit newspaper strikers: "We'll return but fight on"
Tim Wheeler and Lasker Smith,
People's Weekly World
DETROIT--In a major shift in strategy, 2,000 striking Detroit newspaper workers offered Feb. 14 to return to work unconditionally while continuing their battle for a fair contract. The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News accepted the offer Feb. 19.
Alex Young, 39, president of Teamsters Local 2040, told the World that the 400 members of his local have been solid for the 19 month duration of the walkout. "I know there are a lot of unhappy people out there but I'm confident my members will support this new strategy," he said. "Some say it is a surrender, but that's not true."
The law states that workers in an unfair labor practice strike are entitled to reclaim their jobs from so-called "permanent replacements" (scabs) if they offer to return to work.
"By returning to work now, we can reclaim our jobs and get rid of the scabs," Young said during an interview at the Teamster union headquarters here.
"If they try to delay, and we expect they will, they'll be liable for paying huge back pay to our members."
If the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News had rejected the offer, the six unions would have asked the federal court to issue a 10-J order which would require the newspapers to return the workers to their jobs, he said. The unions estimate the companies could have faced back-pay claims of $250,000 per day for every day they refused to put the employees back on the job.
The unions compare their strategy to that employed by the Bridgestone-Firestone workers. "After 10 months on strike, [BF] workers made a return to work offer in May 1995," says a fact sheet prepared by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and distributed to all 2,000 strikers. "After 19 months of working inside the plant, coupled with creative strategies, a contract settlement was won in December 1996."
Young told the World the labor movement will escalate its pressure campaign including the highly effective boycott that has slashed circulation of the Free Press from 1.2 million to about 700,000. "If each international union maintains the current level of strike support, the unions can expand the campaigns against [newspaper owners] Knight-Ridder and Gannett properties nationally and internationally ... The newspapers have rejected Mayor [Dennis] Archer's offer to find other jobs for the scabs. All evidence is that the newspapers want to destroy the unions. We need more leverage."
Young said, "Our efforts will not be over until the company bargains in good faith, until we conclude a signed contract."
He told us he favors a "solidarity day" march in Detroit in support of the newspaper strikers. "I stand strongly behind the solidarity day action," he said. "I think labor needs to do this no matter what. We've got 350,000 union members in the Detroit area ... When the Staley workers went out in Decatur, Illinois, my people didn't know about it. When the Caterpillar workers went out, we didn't know. Now people are aware! We know we have to stand up to defend each other.
"My personal opinion is that Knight-Ridder and Gannett seriously miscalculated," he said. "They thought they could quickly break the union here. They picked the wrong town."
Of the 400 members of IBT Local 2040, production workers who assemble the newspapers, only nine crossed the picketline, he said. "They waged war on us starting back in the middle of our last contract," Young said. "They were attempting to downsize. We offered to negotiate on an attrition plan but they rejected our offer. They plotted and planned this strike." On March 17, 1995, 60 days before the contract was to expire, the company issued a "warn notice" of their plans to i nflict major layoffs. "They were trying to undermine the strength of the union. We call it 'cerebral terrorism.'"
Young's stand was echoed by Local 2040 Vice President John Paralta who was attending the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Los Angeles when he spoke to the World. Paralta said he is now convinced that the back-to-work offer is the best strategy. He and other members of the Detroit delegation met with AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka to urge the labor federation to stage "Solidarity Day III" in Detroit June 14 to boost the newspaper worker struggle. The coalition of six striking newspaper unions call it their "shutdown Motown" campaign.
United Auto Worker President Steve Yokich voiced support for the newspaper workers. "I applaud the courage of all those who are leading this effort to resolve this conflict," Yokich said in a statement circulated at the AFL#CIO council meeting. "I want every striker to know that the UAW stands with them just as strongly today as we did when this strike began."
The advantage of the return to work, Yokich added, "is that strong and committed trade unionists may once again take up the jobs inside the News and Free Press that they have been illegally denied. I hope the corporate officials of Gannett and Knight-Ridder who have inflicted so much unnecessary pain and loss on this community ... will seize this opportunity to review their own position with a view to making a good faith effort to resolve their differences with the striking unions."
Fred Gaboury contributed to this story. Reprinted from People's Weekly World, Feb. 24, 1997.
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