The Detroit newspaper strike was not only one of the longest and largest strikes in history, it also marked the destruction of the negotiation table, argues Fordham University professor Chris Rhomberg.
“The Detroit strike illustrates critical historical changes in the institutional playing field of labor relations and the U.S. since the 1980s,” Rhomberg said in his talk at the Pacific Media Workers Guild on Tuesday night.
Rhomberg spoke about the significance of the Detroit newspaper strike and what it means for the future of labor relationships, which he details in his 2012 book, “The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor.”
Workers at the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News walked off the job in 1995, and the strike finally came to a close in 2000. Six unions representing roughly 2,500 workers including journalists, printers, press operators, circulation workers, janitors and truckers at both papers took part.
“Contract negotiations broke down, amid union charges of bad faith bargaining and unlawful declaration of impasse by employers,” Rhomberg said.
Ultimately, the strike was not about pay or staffing, but the weakening of the collective bargaining process. Rhomberg illustrated this point by reading an editorial from the first issue of the Detroit Sunday Journal strike paper.
“This strike has never really been about money, or even about the number of workers to be bought out or to be laid off,” it says. “Management has demanded or implemented policies that would virtually wipe unions off the playing field by denying representation to hundreds of employees or denying unions the ability to negotiate wages and other substantive issues.”
The Detroit Sunday Journal editors were spot on in their assessment of the strike. Unions were forced to settle contracts on management’s terms after losing their legal leverage. A federal appeals court overturned a National Labor Relations Board ruling which found management guilty of unfair labor practices that perpetuated the strike, Rhomberg said.
Carl Hall, executive officer of Local 39521, wondered if the Detroit strike made any difference. Rhomberg pointed out that the strike did not change history but it was important for a different reason: “It’s more of an indicator of how much has changed rather than a cause of change itself.”
“Some of the management’s contract proposals effectively bypassed the unions or undermined their capacity for collective bargaining,” Rhomberg added. “Others would cut union jobs and replace them with lower-paid, non-union labor. Finally, the judicial precedence and labor law allowed the employers to declare impasse in negotiations and impose their terms and conditions unilaterally, which never happened before.”
The strike also highlighted other problems that faced the newspaper industry. Having media conglomerates like Gannett owning most of the country’s newspapers means executives care more about their stakeholders and bottom line than their obligations to inform the public and this has led to the downfall of newspapers. Rhomberg adds that globalization and technological changes also played a role.
San Francisco Chronicle graphic artist Gloria La Riva questioned the wisdom of the paper’s emphasis on digital news. On the Internet, people can pick and choose what they read, which means that they can bypass coverage of important developments. Such is not the case with a traditional, full-scope newspaper.
“I think what’s happening is very dangerous,” she said. “I really worry about us not having a newspaper.”
“The Broken Table,” which won the 2013 Distinguished Scholarly Book Award on Labor and Labor Movements from the American Sociological Association, is available at local bookstores and online through the publisher’s website.