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The Battle Of Detroit Newspaper Unions Vs. Media Monoliths

The Battle Of Detroit Newspaper Unions Vs. Media Monoliths image The Battle Of Detroit Newspaper Unions Vs. Media Monoliths image The Battle Of Detroit Newspaper Unions Vs. Media Monoliths image
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The Battle of Detroit

Newspaper Unions vs. Media Monoliths


Story By Margaret Trimer-Hartley * Photos By DamonJ. Hartley


As an electrician fo the Detroit Newspaper, Inc., Mike Moran thought he had it made.

He wasn't on strike. He wasn't a scab. His union had a contract.

But crossing other union members' picket lines day after day nagged at him. Unsafe working conditions frightened him. And nightmares about his future kept him awake.

So last month he and seven other electricians put their jobs and their principles on the line and joined more than 2,000 newspaper workers in their five-month strike against the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press and their parent company, Detroit Newspapers, Inc.

"There's no future for us in there right now," said Moran, 37, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 58. "It doesn't matter that we have a contract. Union is union to the company. They'll do anything to bust us all, and we have to do whatever we can to stop them."

Indeed as winter sets in many strikers are becoming increasingly militant. They've adopted the slogan "Victory by Any Means Necessary." They're sporting T-shirts bearing those words and a photo of company guards attacking strikers.

And the Unity Victory Caucus, a new group of middle-level leaders from the six striking unions, has emerged and is urging the union leadership to pursue a more confrontational strategy.

"We're not here to push for violence," said Rick Torres, a striking truck driver from Teamsters Local 372. "But we recognize that it's going to take more than an advertising boycott to win this strike...It's goint to take militant, decisive action."

The striking unions involved in the second-longest newspaper strike in Detroit's history are: Teamsters Local 372; Teamsters Local 2040; Newspaper Guild of Detroit Local 22; Graphic Communications International Union Local 13N; Detroit Typographical Union (CWA) Local 18; and Graphic Communications International Union Local 289 M.

Union Busting 101: Goon Squads, Deep Pockets, & Propaganda

Despite projected losses of about $100 million by the end of the year, Knight Ridder, Inc., which owns the Free Press; and Gannett Corp., which owns the News, also appear ready and willing to go to any extreme to win.

"Are they willing to let somebody get killed?" asked Steve Babson, labor program specialist at Wayne State University (WSU). "Well, they are certainly quite happy to play with fire. They're pursuing strategies that raise the possibility of violence and increase the risk of death."

Perhaps the most visible examples of the determination--and the frustration--on both sides can be seen on Saturday nights at newspaper distribution centers after Labor Day when Macomb County Circuit Judge Raymond Cashen slapped them with an injunction. The injunction prevents mass picketing in the driveway of the paper's main printing plant in Sterling Heights.

Violent clashes between strikers and company guards at the distribution centers have dominated headlines nationally and damaged the unions' images with some people.

Experts and witnesses, however, say the Vance and Asset Protection Team security firms hired by the companies months before the strike began are known for union-busting tactics One of their most effective strategies is to provoke hostile confrontations and then blame strikers.

"Their role is to engineer circumstances to produce an injunction," Babson said. "They pick points where they can act in a provocative manner and attract media attention in their favor."

The 1,200 guards hired by Detroit Newspapers, Inc., have driven trucks into large numbers of strikers, hurled metal objects at picketers and set their own vehicles on fire, witnesses said. When strikers fought back, the guards filmed them and turned the footage over to the police, media and court officials.

Reports on television and in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other national publications have spotlighted the violence. They also have echoed the Free Press' and News' line that the strike is over because the unions have been unable to stop production and almost half of the Newspaper Guild's 650 members have crossed their picket lines and returned to work.

ButRoger Kerson, spokesman for the Metropolitan Council of Unions, the umbrella organization of the six striking unions, denounced reports that the strike is over and criticized the media's slant toward the companies.

"They're trying to win in perception what they can't win on the ground--which is the hearts and minds of the citizens of the metro Detroit area," Kerson told the Detroit Journal, the strikers' online news service.

Kerson said the media tend to accept and report as true virtually everything the company of the police say. They relentlessly challenge or ignore union claims, he said.

"They put a whole different standard of proof on a union member," Kerson said. And that, he added,has often made it difficult to keep the strike in the news.

Striker Strategy: Taking the High Road

Last month, new union strategies gave the striking workers a public relations boost.

The unions successfully launched The Detroit Sunday Journal, the largest strike paper ever produced nationally. About 300,000 copies of the 48-page tabloid sold vigorously. One day after it hit newsstands, according to union officials, advertisers were eager to buy space and readers were seeking subscriptions.

The unions also joined in a class-action federal anti-trust lawsuit Nov. 21, alleging that the Free Press and News violated the terms of the joint operating agreement by producing combined papers for the first several weeks of the strike. In 1992, the companies added an amendment to the original 1989 merger agreement, but it was not approved through proper channels.

The original agreement allows for joint papers only on weekends and holidays.

Additionally, hundreds of strikers and supporters beefed up peaceful picketing activities and fanned out across metro Detroit the day after Thanksgiving--the busiest shopping day of the year--to leaflet at stores that continue to advertise in the Free Press and News. Their effort discouraged many shoppers from patronizing such stores as Art Van Furniture and Kmart.

The United Auto Workers (UAW), Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and dozens of other unions have supported strikers with money, their presence on picket lines, and assistance on advertising and subscription boycotts.

"We have so much support," said Susan Hall-Balduf, a striking Free Press copy editor. "I know because I open the checks that come to us from across the country. I open everything from $1,000 checks to the $2 check from the man in a nursing home in Wisconsin, who said that he sent all he could because he didn't want us to think that we're alone."

The JOA Factor: Unleveling the Playing Field

By most accounts, the papers are bleeding.

In 1994, the Free Press and News posted a record $55 million profit. Now, 336 advertisers have pulled out of the paper while 378 have continued to or have recently run ads, union officials said. The companies have been forced to offer space at deep discounts, and they admit to at least a 25% drop in circulation. Knight-Ridder and Gannett each saw stock prices decline following reports of third-quarter losses.

"Every paper they are printing right now is losing money," said James Buckley, vice president of Media Studies at Market Opinion Research in Farmington Hills. "They can't sell their advertising for squat and they have much higher distribution costs."

But how much money and credibility the nation's two largest newspaper conglomerates are willing to lose before seeking to end the strike is anybody's guess.

"Their financial people have probably drawn a line and said, 'When we reach this point, that's enough," Buckley said.

But the companies have taken such a hard line that they would more likely shut down one or both papers than make major concessions to the unions, he said.

"Both sides have taken such a tough line that this is like our version of Bosnia," he said.

Even an end to the strike won't preserve both papers, Buckley said. He expects one to fold before long because joint operating agreements often lead to the demise of one of the papers. In Miami and Pittsburgh, JOAs meant one newspaper closed. The San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle also appear to be negotiating the closure of one paper. 

JOAs are granted when one paper--in Detroit's case, the Free Press--is at risk of failing. They exempt papers from federal anti-monopoly laws and allow them to merge business operations while maintaining separate editorial voices.

"If there's a weak link, a strike is usually the straw that breaks the camel's back," Buckley said, adding that the Detroit Times folded after the nine-month Detroit newspaper strike in 1968.

Top officials of Knight-Ridder and Gannett have written to shareholders and explained that the short-term losses of the strike will be balanced by long-term gains in efficiency.

Busting the unions, which many strikers and some analysts believe is the companies' goal, would enable them to more easily layoff workers, pay lower wages, outsource and automate.

More significantly, eliminating unions at their Detroit holdings could help them oust unions at their other papers and further cut staff and costs.

Knight-Ridder owns 28 papers, of which nine are unionized; Gannett owns 83 papers, of which only five are unionized.

Both papers own other media enterprises; their combined profits near $2 billion.

In addition to the financial losses, the companies have also incurred a series of annoying, but less costly damages.

Dozens of carriers whose cars have been vandalized during the weekend confrontations have quit, thousands of dollars worth of company equipment has been damaged and city officials in Detroit and Sterling Heights have criticized the companies for seeking their help escorting vehicles in and out of plant gates. That has required thousands fo hours of overtime and has put the cities in the awkward position of accepting reimbursement from the newspapers or using tax dollars to foot the bill.

Additionally, top executives of the papers and Free Press sports columnist Mitch Albom have faced masses of picketers in their own neighborhoods.

But despite losses and hassles, the papers are still reaching readers. Nobody, however, is sure precisely how many since the papers declined to undergo an official audit.

But they are maintaining visibility. And that, Buckley said, is key if the papers expect to ever return to profitability.

Potrait of a Striker: Poor But Right

Shouting at scabs and former bosses from the picket line is cathartic for Susan Hall-Balduf, the striking Free Press copy editor. But being on strike has been more than just a chance to take a few jabs at those on the inside. It's a chance to teach her 13-year-old twins about courage.

"It is not more important to provide for their material wants than to teach them a lesson in moral courage," Hall-Balduf, 41, said. "If they go through lean times now when they are little and I'm protecting them, it will be easier for them to survive when they are older. It will make them tough."

Hall-Balduf is working part-time at the Coffee Beanery at Eastland Mall in Harper Woods and is accepting food donations from the Teamsters food bank.

"My children at Cheerios for four weeks," Hall-Balduf said. "But they will survive."

Hall-Balduf explained merit-pay, one of the key issues she went on strike over, to her children in simple terms. She told them that a merit-pay system can be as unfair to journalists as a mom giving candy to one of her children and depriving her others. "They have no problem understanding how unfair that is," she said.

Hall-Balduf said she is able to keep  fighting after five months because she uses all the resources and donations available to her. A member of the committee that helps strikers who are in dire financial trouble, Hall-Balduf said she is puzzled why so many members of her unions, the Newspaper Guild, refuse to seek help and instead cross their picket line and return to work.

"They just make me so angry," Hall-Balduf said. "They're proving that everything Knight-Ridder and Gannett stand for is justified. They're saying that money is more important than integrity. ... Personally, I'd rather be right and poor."



Organized Labor at the Crossroads

The issues that have separated management and unions leaders in the strike are complex. Virtually every pivotal issue that labor as been grappling with for decades is at stake--wages, health care, new technology, outsourcing, merit-pay and downsizing.

"It's like a Noah's Ark of labor's struggle for the last 25 years," said Babson of WSU. "This is the single most important strike confrontation in Detroit in the last quarter century."

But at the bargaining table, the union and the companies are at a virtual stand-off.

At press time, the Free Press Unit of the Newspaper Guild is scheduled to meet with company bargainers Dec. 6. Nothing else is scheduled.

The companies' position seems to have hardened. They have said they can operate with about 700 fewer workers and have refused to fire replacement workers. The company offered the Newspaper Guild a 401K tax-deferred savings plan, but stood firm on a series of concessions.

The unions offered to return to work under the conditions of the old contracts and to submit unresolved issues to binding arbitration after 30 days of intensive bargaining.

The company rejected the offer.

Workers have gone without an across-the-board cost-of-living raise since 1989, when the Detroit Newspapers, Inc. asked the unions to forfeit increases until the companies became profitable.



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