2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the San Francisco newspaper strike, a successful 11-day shutdown of The Chronicle and Examiner. Less than a year later, workers who walked-out at The Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press found themselves striking for 583 days. When Detroit newspaper management replaced 2,500 union members at these two mid-western dailies–—then owned by Gannett and Knight-Ridder respectively—not only was the quality of local journalism compromised. The six unions involved suffered labor’s biggest media industry defeat in the last several decades.
Anyone contemplating a newspaper strike now or in the future would do well to consult The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor (Russell Sage, 2012) by Chris Rhomberg. A Fordham University professor, the author carefully documents the obstacles that Detroit strikers faced, how they tried to overcome them, and what consequences their defeat has had, locally and nationally. The Broken Table is grim, if essential, reading for contract campaign planners anywhere else in the private sector where a major employer has deep-pockets, lots of other revenue producing properties, and the same management-friendly labor law on its side.
An Extreme Case?
By virtue of America’s steadily declining rate of major job actions, the strike against the Detroit News and Free Press was, as Rhomberg notes, “an extreme case.” Some might even view it as an outlier, harking back to an earlier era of no-holds-barred industrial conflict in Detroit. The work stoppage was “larger than 97 percent—and longer than 99 percent—of all private-sector strikes from 1984 to 2002.” In other cities, newspaper worker unity was often thwarted by craft union divisions. In Detroit, however, the Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions (MCNU) successfully coordinated strike action by “white-collar professionals, blue-collar laborers, and skilled crafts-persons”—a picket-line mix definitely not the U.S. norm, then or now. (The PMWG’s 1994 strike in San Francisco involved eight unions and displayed similar cross-craft unity.)
In Detroit, negotiators for multiple-bargaining units aligned their contract expiration dates so they could act simultaneously against a common employer, the Detroit Newspaper Agency (DNA). The product of a controversial Justice Department-approved joint operating agreement (JOA), this corporate entity allowed Knight, Ridder and Gannett to merge their production, circulation, advertising, accounting, and marketing operations in the city, while maintaining their separate newspaper brands.
Siege Warfare in the Mid-West
At the bargaining table, the DNA demanded or had already 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.” As Detroit Guild attorney Duane Ice told Rhomberg:
“After decades of bargaining nobody could recall any instance when these employers or any other newspapers in Detroit, had bargained to impasse and…basically declared an end to collective bargaining. It meant the unions had no role in the outcome. Basically, an employer could go through the motions, declare impasse, and say, ‘Well, here are the terms and conditions. We’re done.’”
Rhomberg documents how the resulting strike “never fully succeeded in halting the production and distribution of the newspapers.” Tacitly acknowledging their inability to stop production, union leaders “relied instead on circulation and advertising boycotts and on their legal case” at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Whatever disruption and extra costs they had to endure in Detroit, Gannett and Knight, Ridder survived thanks to the revenue generated by their many other newspapers (both unionized and non-union) that continued to operate.
In February, 1997, after nineteen months on the line, the Detroit unions made unconditional offers to return to work. Management offered to “take back only a fraction of the striking workers, as new vacancies allowed,” because they wouldn’t send any of their replacements packing. Four months later, an administrative law judge from the NLRB upheld the unions’ claim that the walkout was an unfair labor practice strike.
“The judge ordered the companies to reinstate striking workers, displacing, if necessary, the replacement workers and making any strikers not reinstated eligible for back pay.” Two days after that encouraging decision, the AFL-CIO hosted a belated demonstration of national union solidarity with Detroit newspaper employees. More than 60,000 union members marched, rallied, and cheered the latest legal developments.
Let Down By The Law
Unfortunately, NLRB case appeal procedures are a monument to “justice delayed, justice denied.” The DNA refused to comply with the ALJ’s decision and the Labor Board’s failed to get a federal judge to issue “an interim injunction requiring that all strikers be returned immediately to their jobs” while litigation continued. A year later, in the summer of 1998, the Board in Washington, D.C. unanimously upheld the ALJ’s ruling, setting the stage for a further company appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals. In the meantime, more than 400 former strikers remained locked out or fired (including five of the six local union presidents involved).
One hundred million dollars in back pay was riding on the appellate court’s decision. On July 7, 2000, the back pay and reinstatement hopes of many were dashed when the prior NLRB rulings were overturned. Rhomberg describes what happened next:
“Deprived of their legal leverage, the unions were forced to accept contracts on management’s terms. The last of the six unions settled in December, 2000, and, more than five years after it began, the Detroit newspaper strike was over….The agreements offered no amnesty provisions for fired strikers, including prominent writers and columnists who had participated in non-violent civil disobedience. The newspapers refused to take those employees back, and further legal appeals went on for several more years. Finally, most of the individual strike-related civil rights suits were dismissed or settled out of court.”
As Rhomberg notes, the Detroit newspapers did pay a price for “their scorched earth policy toward the strikers in a community that placed a high value on unionism.” He estimates direct strike-related losses to be $130 million, because a third of all subscribers were lost. “Circulation fell at eight times the rate for the industry as a whole between 1995 and 1999, and dozens of veteran journalists left the papers and the city, taking with them years of knowledge and public memory.”
In 2005, after nearly seven decades in Detroit, Knight Ridder sold the Free Press to Gannett. The latter then abandoned Detroit too after unloading both papers on a national suburban newspaper chain called MediaNews Group, Inc. By 2011, the News and Free Press had 500,000 fewer readers than they did when their previous owners tamed the unions in 1995.
Steve Early is a former contract negotiator and strike organizer for the Communications Workers of America in New England. Now a member of the PMWG’s Freelance Unit, he is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress, from Monthly Review Press, where a longer version of this essay/review can be found.