March prompts court action in Detroit strike
July/August 1997

Detroit--Locked out workers at Detroit's two newspapers got good news on June 20 when a federal judge agreed that the newspapers had caused the 23-month strike and lockout by their unfair labor practices. The decision came down on the eve of a march called by the AFL-CIO to give weight to the 2,000 workers' demands that they all be reinstated at their jobs and that the companies bargain a contract in good faith.

"The court said what we knew all along, Gannett and Knight-Ridder are guilty, guilty, guilty!" said locked-out worker Susan Watson, editor of the strikers paper, the weekly Detroit Sunday Journal. The court found the company guilty in 10 of 12 unfair labor practice charges, including illegally threatening to replace strikers and illegally declaring an impasse in talks with the 6 unions. The company was also found guilty of reneging on a promise to bargain on economic issues with the unions and illegally imposing working conditions, "including a controversial merit pay plan that [Judge] Wilks said was unlawful," according to the Sunday Journal.

Around 75,000 people, including at least six from Gainesville, marched in solidarity with the workers on June 21. Organizers estimated 100,000 to 120,000 while the Detroit police placed the number at 50,000. Gainesvillians who marched carried the banner of the Central Labor Council of North Central Florida, AFL-CIO. "People were excited to see we had come from as far away as Florida and took our pictures," said Alex Leader, a member of the Gainesville delegation.

The strike and lock-out are a test of labor's strength in this quintessentially union town. For two years, the workers of the Detroit News and Free Press--from journalists to press operators to clerical workers to drivers--have walked the picket line, demanding that the company, which earned $56 million in profit in 1994, bargain fairly with the unions, guarantee some job security and share some of its prosperity with the workforce that made it profitable.

In 1989, the Detroit News (Gannett) and Free Press (Knight-Ridder) combined under a joint operating agreement designed to save failing newspapers. The union workers were told that the companies would close if they didn't make concessions: wage freezes, job cuts, and speed up. In turn, the company promised that everyone would get a piece of the pie if they worked hard and got the papers on their feet again. The unions agreed to allow job cuts of several hundred workers and a wage freeze, always believing it was necessary to keep the papers afloat. But when the papers earned $56 million in profit in 1994, the companies demanded more concessions, including free reign to manipulate the workforce. By the time the contract expired on April 30, 1995, negotiations had ground to a halt. The unions agreed to extend the deadline and work without a contract, but the companies refused to give an inch and started to impose unilateral policies like merit pay. Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer offered to intervene in a last-ditch attempt to avoid a strike. The companies refused. On July 13, all 6 unions struck. The unions, which negotiated with the company together as the Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions, include Teamsters locals 372 and 2040, the Newspaper Guild local 22, Graphic Communications International Union locals 13N and 259, and Detroit Typographical Union Local 18 (CWA).

The workers have spent two years picketing, blockading, getting arrested, getting bailed out, and convincing their friends and neighbors not to buy the News or Free Press. Union supporters refuse to talk to the papers. Eight hundred and fifty religious leaders have condemned the hiring of scabs. Detroit City Council President Maryann Mahaffey has been arrested several times with the strikers. All across town signs sprout: "No News or Free Press Wanted Here." The papers have lost 300,000 subscribers (from about 900,000 to 600,000) and the unions estimate they've cost the papers $300 million in lost advertising and subscription revenue, as 1400 advertisers have quit the News and Free Press.

"If this were a local struggle, we would have won it ten times over," said a striker at a teach-in at Wayne State University on Friday night before the big rally. Gannett and Knight-Ridder have kept the Detroit papers going through infusions of cash from other profitable papers such as USA Today and the Miami Herald and by hiring 1,500 scabs to take the jobs of the union workers. They are out to destroy the union pay scales, and because so many Detroiters need jobs, they have been able to fill the strikers jobs for cheap. They are paying scab mailers $8 for jobs which used to pay $16, and scab circulation workers $10 and hour for jobs which used to pay $14.

Detroit Newspapers "fired" 211 striking workers for picketing, and at least 61 workers have been injured in picket-line attacks by newspaper security guards, scab workers, or the police. Some of these people were hospitalized or are permanently disabled. The companies hired 1,200 security guards six months before the strike started, and they paid overtime (about $80,000) to the police force in Sterling Heights. In exchange these cops defended the ability of the Detroit Newspapers to produce the paper with scab labor by pepper gassing and beating up picketers and people who were trying to stop the scab papers from leaving the printing plant. Many of these attacks are captured on videotape.

The dirty tricks of the company highlight the role of the corporate media in America today. Political scientist and media analyst Michael Parenti says, "The media is not beholden to big business, it is not sympathetic to big business, it is not in bed with big business, it IS big business." Gannett is the largest newspaper company in America, with 90 papers. It is about to add seven more when it buys the Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times, and four other military-related papers. Knight-Ridder, based in Miami, is the second-largest, owning 35 papers. These corporations have frozen out any news from the strikers point of view and have been shown to be so biased--not to mention incompetent--that they are now widely regarded as joke papers in Detroit. For example, the coverage of the march didn't mention the march. It only mentioned that the Federal Court decision's timing was biased towards the unions, although the unfair labor practice trial ended Oct. 2, 1995, nine months before the decision came down. Their coverage of the unfair labor practice decision didn't report what they were found guilty of doing. They did promise to appeal the ruling, and spent several paragraphs disparaging the judge and the National Labor Relations Board.

The Detroit Sunday Journal recalled that in late '95, Frank Vega, CEO of the Detroit Newspapers, said that the newspapers would use the appeals process "Until all the strikers left town or died." As part of the day of action in Detroit, marchers assembled in Grosse Pointe Farms, an affluent suburb where Vega owns a house. Chanting, "Your neighbor is a crook!" and "No justice, No Peace!" about 500 people marched through the tree-lined streets and set up a picket outside Vega's house, passing out wanted posters with Vega's face on them. Rent-a-cops guarded the house and videotaped the marchers. Vega has also been charged with drunk driving and insider trading, as well as being found guilty, with his corporate bosses, of illegally forcing the strike by refusing to bargain in good faith.

During the nine months waiting for a verdict, the unions agreed to go back to work. By law, the newspapers are required to rehire their workforce, but about 10% of workers have been called back to work. This now constitutes a lock out. The unions now have to get the court to order the newspapers to follow the law (a 10(j) injunction), and order the papers to pay back pay to February when the strikers made the offer to go back to work.

Nationally, the unions are targetting for boycott USA Today, the Miami Herald, and all other Gannett and Knight-Ridder papers. Donations should be sent to the Detroit Newspaper Workers Relief Fund, c/o Walter Freeman, GCIU Local 13N, 3300 Book Bldg., Detroit, MI 48226. You can subscribe to the Detroit Sunday Journal, 3 months for $15 or 6 months for $30. Write: The Detroit Sunday Journal, Attn.: Mail Subscriptions, 450 W. Fort, 2nd Floor, Detroit, MI 48226.

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