Showdown at Motown

It was a "Showdown in Motown" Saturday when under a sweltering solstice sun more than 120,000 people from 45 states marched peacefully through downtown Detroit to support locked-out newspaper workers.Next month, the Detroit newspaper strike will be two years old. Saturday's march and rally signaled an increasing resolve. AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney told a wildly cheering crowd that the message for The Gannett Corp., The Knight-Ridder Corp., and their stockholders and boards of directors was: "We give fair warning. This fight is now our fight and now you will pay the price." The word "price" is appropriate because two of the nation's media monoliths, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, are locked in a struggle that ultimately has more to do with profit margins than paychecks.Background of the Strike Labor problems started well before July 13, 1995, when 2,558 members of six unions representing reporters, editors, photographers, composing room staff, photo engravers, mailers, printers and drivers walked off their jobs at the Gannett-owned Detroit News and Knight-Ridder's Detroit Free Press. This past February, the strikers offered to return to work unconditionally with a plan to resume negotiations. While management did rehire more than 200 workers, its refusal to remove replacement workers hired after the strike, or former strikers who'd crossed picket lines and returned to work, has shifted the labor rhetoric from a strike situation to a lockout. While figures differ between management and the unions, the lockout by management continues to affect nearly 2,000 newspaper workers and their families. Since the strike began, more than 800 Detroit religious leaders have called the two newspaper companies "immoral" for using replacement workers, or scabs. Combined circulation loss, due to a readership boycott, is estimated at nearly 300,000 and more than 1,400 advertisers have pulled out because of dwindling circulation. Eight years ago, Detroit's two daily newspapers began functioning under a Joint Operating Agreement, (JOA), known as Detroit Newspapers Inc. While hundreds of employees at both newspapers lost their jobs with the consolidation, five years later, both papers' profit margins were again increasing. During this time, newspaper management pushed for nonunion areas in the unionized composing room and halving part-time pay in the mailroom distribution area, among other cutback proposals. According to the strikers' newspaper, the Detroit Sunday Journal, union workers at the papers had received no base wage increase since 1991. The final sparks occurred in the spring of 1995, during contract negotiations with the six unions at both newspapers. A Teamster proposal for larger pensions, bonuses and buyouts and a plan by Robert Giles, then-publisher of the News, for newsroom merit pay raises prompted the strike. Shortly after the strike began, Duane Ice, attorney for the Teamster and Guild members, received a three-page memo dated April 30, 1992, that was sent to the U.S. Department of Justice. According to the Journal, the memo contained a request by Detroit Newspapers Inc. to amend its JOA and allow "publication of a joint daily" in the event of a strike. The memo languished in Justice Department files for three years, even though legally the unions were to receive a copy.The memo, among other things, has framed the unions' legal strategy that both newspaper companies premeditatively bargained in bad faith, a labor law violation. On Friday, the day before the "Action! Motown Ô97" rally, union members and their supporters received an encouraging ruling from Thomas Wilks, administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Wilks ruled the newspapers engaged in unfair labor practices and bargained in bad faith. His order included hiring back the former newspaper workers and removing, "if necessary," employees hired to replace those workers since July 13, 1995. Wilks' ruling followed a six-month trial in which the regional NLRB director had charged both papers and Detroit Newspapers Inc. with unfair labor practices. While the companies do not have to rehire the union workers, pending a probable and lengthy appeals process, the ruling, nonetheless, was perceived by the Detroit marchers as a major morale boost. The MarchAs marchers began gathering, Teamster semi-trucks lined Michigan Avenue by Tiger Stadium with their identifying banners from Pennsylvania, New England and Chicago. The song "Born To Be Wild" blasted down the still-empty street with the hazy Detroit skyline as the backdrop. A man smoking a fat cigar, wearing a priest's clerical collar, leaned against a building and observed the preparations. Another fellow dressed all in black with a "wise guy" attitude paced a vacant lot; later he was observed wearing a badge and driving a lead car. Two women walked by, wearing T-shirts with the words "Locked Out Worker" and the number of years they'd worked at Detroit papers -- one had 37, the other, 13. A hearse pulled up with flashing lights and a large sign, "The News and The Free Press Are Trying To Bury Us." Within an hour, the quiet intersection was clogged as wave after wave of marchers rounded the corners of the cross-streets with banners held high and the chants of "Union, Yes, Scabs, No" and "We Are The Union -- Mighty. Mighty Union" filled the air. And suddenly there were thousands and thousands of people who had come to Detroit from California, Indiana, Wisconsin, Cleveland, Iowa, Philadelphia, New York and Dayton. A panoply of colors and affiliationstretched as far as the eye could see -- mineworkers in green and yellow, teamsters in blue and gold, auto workers in blue and white, teachers in red and blue, communication workers in purple and yellow, public employees in green, farm workers in red and service workers in purple. Many of the marchers carried the sign, "No News or Free Press Wanted Here."As the parade got underway, the media's flatbed truck preceded the marchers, and it became clear then that any telling of this story was going to be a selective one, given the fact few national or local media were spotted. Most of the people filming the event and taking notes appeared to be from various labor press organizations, not the mainstream media. "Look at all these union people," said one of the riders. "Yes," said another. "The only difference is some are earning money and some are not." Many of the marchers had come with their sons and daughters. A toddler held high a strike sign while perched in his Little Tikes green wagon. Right behind him was a contingent of Teamsters, holding up strike signs as they straddled Harleys. As they moved down Michigan Avenue, marchers began kicking the corner newsboxes. One mother and her young son beat a News box with their picket signs and kicked in the plastic face. Soon, the sound of toppled boxes and crunched metal could be heard at every corner. It wasn't until those marchers who knew Detroit and recognized that one of the buildings they were passing wasn't just a generic office building, but home of The Detroit News, that the personalized passions regarding this lockout became apparent. Line after line of marchers held high their signs and shouted "shame, shame on you" and "guilty" as they passed the News, located across the street from the Detroit Chamber of Commerce. Four police officers stood in front of the News building, with its dark, opaque windows looming above the crowd.Suddenly, a young Teamster walked around the building's side to a vacant lot, where he spied an open window on the News' top floor, in which several people were watching the action down below from their employed perch. Standing alone, he began a dance that was simultaneously graceful and aggressive. Extending his arms in a fluid motion, he beckoned the workers to come down and join the march, then flung his hands up and out toward the open window in a gesture of eloquent anger. Within minutes other Teamsters joined him. One picked up a cement chunk as he headed towards the open window. While the young Teamster danced, others shouted to the News workers, "jump, scab, jump" and "come to Daddy scab boy." In the end only words were flung at the building, after a parade organizer quietly asked folks to resume marching so they wouldn't be videotaped by the newspaper's agents. They cheerfully complied.After that, the new chant for marchers passing the News was "jump scab jump."Marcher George Waldman worked as a News photographer for eight years and until the strike, ten years for the Free Press. "I used to joke about being on a picket line," he said with a wince. Besides picket line duty, where he said, "people have tried to run me over," Waldman runs the Journal's photo department and delivers 500 copies of the newspaper with his 17-year-old son. "I've told him, you keep your promises and you live up to your beliefs." Those beliefs have been tested as Waldman recounted how half of his photography colleagues have returned to the papers, and one friend who walked the picket line with him for months went back to work without a word. "It's difficult to lose someone you've been dependent upon for emotional support," he said.At his home, his mailbox has been smashed and Journal copies and strike signs strewn about. When asked whether the culprit is his neighbor across the street, who is the book editor for The Free Press, he said, "She doesn't care enough. It seems people forgot about us, we're locked out, we're not on strike." Walter Bardram, a locked-out Teamster driver, said community efforts to boycott the papers' advertisers have worked, citing Dayton Hudson Department Store's cancellation of a multimillion dollar advertising contract, even though the store has non-union employees. "They had sales and nobody showed up. Food chains and car dealers have pulled out," he said. Claire O'Neil-Prior has worked 24 years as a printer for The Washington Post. She marched Saturday because her unit is getting ready for negotiations and she sees the Detroit struggle as a labor bellwether for all newspaper workers. "We went from 900 printers to 148," she said. "We're told there's money for educational training from management, but for those of us left, the average age is 57." O'Neil-Prior also said that this fall, the Post plans to start testing a Japanese press with plans to have the paper "totally paginated" by 1999, which means no jobs for printers or composing room employees.The sense of connectedness between people from different places, backgrounds and occupations was palpable as marchers offered each other water and sunscreen. Along the route, the familiar signs that said "No News or Free Press wanted here" were posted in store windows. A woman in her early 20s was spied inserting coins in a still-standing newsbox. Upon closer inspection, she was inserting slugs in the boxes she passed.Anne Feeney sang about scabs: "They've got no brains, they've got no heart and they're tearing our communities apart."Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), said, "I'm a teacher and I know about lessons and I can tell you're learning a lesson that Gannett and Knight-Ridder have no regard for workers, for communities, for advertisers or the law. Gannett and Knight-Ridder lack the conscience to produce anything you can trust as the truth."At the rally, labor's national commitment to the Detroit lockout was evidenced by the presence of national presidents from unions such as the Teamsters; postal workers; steel workers; and the oil, chemical and atomic workers. Also present were the president of the National Journalists Union of England, and from France, the presidents of the National Journalists Union and the National Newspaper Union.AFL-CIO president Sweeney said the Detroit battle has cost Knight-Ridder and Gannett "$550 million from the pockets of these corporate thugs." Sweeney and others called for a more aggressive boycott of USA Today, Gannett's nationally distributed newspaper.


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