Bitter Battle:
The Detroit Newspaper Strike

Revolutionary Worker #915, July 13, 1997

The summer of 1995 will be remembered by thousands of workers in Detroit as the moment their lives were turned upside down. Their employers at Detroit's two corporate newspapers had pushed and pushed--until there was clearly no alternative but to fight back. After walking out on strike, the 2,000 newspaper workers found themselves dissed, replaced and squaring off against police in front of the major newspaper printing plants.

The two years since then have seen an intense struggle by these workers and their supporters. They have faced dozens of injuries from speeding trucks and club-wielding cops at the plant gates. They have traveled the country to rally support and confront corporate heads. And they have searched for a way to actually defeat the ruthless corporate moves of the newspaper owners.


It is clear that as early as 1989, Gannet and Knight-Ridder--the corporate owners of the city's two newspapers, the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press--started making plans to completely break up their previous agreements with the city's newspaper workers.

In 1989 these two newspapers were merged in a "Joint Operating Agreement" (JOA)--which combined all of their operations except for the editorial departments. This JOA immediately produced the firing of 1,000 workers--out of a combined workforce of about 3,500. And that was just the start. The new Gannet-Knight board of directors issued one demand after another to the six unions representing the newspaper workers--a freeze in wages, layoffs, worse working conditions. At each point, the six unions representing the workers gave in to the demands--hoping to avoid a showdown. A year before the strike, the owners got $56 million in profits from the two papers, but still demanded more concessions.

Six months before the strike, the newspaper owners hired 1,200 jack-booted security guards--many of them from Vance International Security, an infamous union-busters outfit known to hire Soldier of Fortune-type mercenaries.

Finally, the Detroit News publisher Robert Giles crudely ignored existing contracts and announced outrageous new work conditions. A strike deadline was set--and when the company refused to talk, the workers went out on strike--July 13, 1995.

In August, the Detroit Free Press announced that they would hire strikebreakers--known as scabs--to replace any workers who did not cross the picket lines and return to work within three days. The corporations hired 1,400 scabs off the streets to replace the 2,000 striking workers.

Many of the Detroit newspaper workers could not believe what was happening to them. Many had worked for years at the newspapers as clerical and maintenance workers. Others, especially the skilled pressroom workers had been making $35,000 or even $50,000 a year--as had the various reporters and photographers. Some reporters had even once referred to their newspaper as "the mothership."

The strike quickly got intense and violent. The workers made militant moves to shut down the production of the newspapers. They gathered to stop scab newspaper trucks from leaving the printing plants. They were joined by growing numbers of supporters--Detroit is a big union town. Many workers and activists were eager to help defend the people from such a crude corporate attack. A group of progressive clergy formed a support group called "Readers United."

At the printing plants and corporate offices, Vance thugs in black combat uniforms were spying on the picketers and organizing covert "dirty tricks." It has been exposed that Detroit Newspaper Inc. (the business agent for the Free Press and News) secretly gave large amounts of money directly to various city governments to pay for strike-related expenses, like police overtime. The suburb of Sterling Heights received over $1.3 million--and the first payment began six months before the strike when Detroit Newspapers Inc. secretly paid for police riot gear. Off-duty cops served as body guards for the publishers.

The most militant resistance happened about seven weeks into the strike--over two Saturday nights in September 1995. Several thousand strikers and supporters rallied--determined to prevent scab newspapers from leaving the printing plants with the Sunday editions. They faced off with club-swinging cops. As tear gas was fired, the workers successfully blocked the paper-filled trucks from leaving the plant.

Several workers were seriously injured. One was hit by a scab delivery truck trying to rush out of the Clayton Street distribution center in October 1995. At least 15 other workers were hit by scab vehicles. One worker was badly beaten, kicked and pepper-sprayed by a swarm of police.

During this strike, at least 61 strikers and supporters have been injured and hundreds arrested.

These Saturday night actions were very effective. Momentum was with the strikers. Workers throughout the Detroit area were inspired and many were going to the picket lines to fight alongside the strikers. An RW reader, an electrician, was there in those confrontations. "We realized how strong we were," he told the RW, "and how scared they were."

For many strikers the intensity of the strike was as big a shocker as the intensity of the company attack. Suddenly, there they were--dissed, dismissed, replaced--and fighting police in the streets! For some strikers, from Detroit's white suburbs, the experience brought new insight into who the police really "serve and protect."

Crossroads for the Strike

When police alone couldn't defeat the strikers, the company turned to the courts. In September 1995, the owners asked for and got a court injunction against mass picketing. This order from a judge made it illegal for more than ten picketers at a time to gather at the gate of the main publishing plant. In other words, it was now illegal to actually stop the trucks from leaving with the scab newspapers.

There was much struggle over how to respond to this injunction--and it proved to be a major turning point of the strike.

Typically, the union officials were firmly against violating the injunction--they were afraid that the judge would fine their union treasuries if mass picketing continued. And the workers themselves were divided--some were not willing to take the risks of so directly "break the rules."

Active workers demanded that the union officials mobilize the national trade union movement--to bring people from all over the country to Detroit. The national officials of the AFL-CIO stalled--reportedly because they thought a national trade union mobilization might disrupt Clinton's strategy for re-election in November 1996.

The local union officials called off the mass pickets. When some rank-and-file forces tried to continue the plant gate confrontations, they were denounced by the union officials.

The union officials claimed they were proposing a new strategy--based on organized public opinion in Detroit to boycott the two newspapers. They would urge people to buy a special weekly strikers' newspaper--the Sunday Journal--instead of the scab editions of the Free Press and News. Officials suggested that the workers appeal to Detroit merchants to withdraw advertising from the Free Press and News. And they suggested a campaign to urge various ruling class figures associated with other newspapers, like former first lady Rosalyn Carter, to pressure the Detroit newspaper owners to bargain with the strikers.

This kind of tactics--called "corporate campaigns"--have become popular among union officials. Such approaches, officials say, put pressure on the companies in "respectable" ways--without running the risks of confronting police or breaking court injunctions. In Detroit, as in so many other strikes before, these methods channeled the strikers into activities where they and their supporters had little initiative, power or chance of success.

It has been reported that a section of the national AFL-CIO leadership, specifically the miners union president Rich Trumka, suggested that the strikers adopt a "no contract, no peace" strategy--to combine "flying squads" of strikers with various mass mobilizations to disrupt newspaper distribution and rally support. Local union officials reportedly rejected any such plans--insisting that organizing boycotts of subscriptions and advertising should be the central activity of strikers. They urged their members to stay away from any actions that might lead to arrests.

In short: The strike continued, but for many people, it suddenly looked like the struggle had shut down. One Black autoworker told the RW that people from her plant had regularly gone to the Sterling Park gate actions, "Then they just stopped. We never knew why."

Strikers were mobilized to travel the country protesting at various company board meetings, and protesting at the homes of newspaper executives.

Starting in the spring of 1996 there were attempts to respark the mass resistance--by organizing weekly sit-ins at the plant gates or corporate offices. About 300 people were arrested, including ministers, union presidents, and activists.

Meanwhile, the masses in Detroit continued to show a willingness to support the strikers. Over 300,000 people canceled subscriptions--a 35 percent drop in circulation. About 1,400 advertisers stopped advertising in the two papers.

Detroit is an impoverished, largely Black city--where hundreds of thousands of people have been abused and bypassed. The whole area has a deeply rooted union movement. There is tremendous potential for people to support a real struggle--in ways that go far beyond the pro-strike signs that sprouted on lawns across the city and its suburbs. But the "corporate" tactics of the newspaper unions failed to mobilize such support--and, in fact, the heads of those unions were dead against anything that might stir up such support and militancy.

Calling Off the Strike

In February 1997, the struggle took a turn for the worse. The union officials announced that the strike was over--and they announced that the workers would now return under whatever conditions the company wanted.

The only demand left was that the workers get their jobs back.

The company would not even agree to that.

Gannet-Knight said they would accept the strikers back (as they are required to do by law), but they announced they would only rehire strikers slowly as new openings appeared. The company refused to fire the scabs and give the strikers their old jobs back. And they insisted they would never hire back the hundreds of workers they had formally fired for strike activity.

By April, the companies had only allowed 200 out of the 2,000 striking workers to return to their jobs. The struggle had officially become a "lockout." One Free Press photographer and strike activist said, "The good ol' American Dream has become a nightmare." More strikers started to take new jobs and give up on ever working for the News or Free Press again.

It was at this moment--after smothering and disorganizing this struggle to the brink of defeat--that the top officials of the AFL-CIO finally said they would call for a national march of solidarity with the Detroit strikers.

The Federal Rulings

Many of the Gannet-Knight maneuvers--from the initial breaking of the contracts to the current refusal to rehire strikers--are blatantly illegal. But the courts are not set up for justice. The only quick and important decision to come out of the courts was the injunction that made the mass picketing of printing plants illegal.

Then, the day before the June 21 march, an administrative law judge of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that the newspaper companies had violated federal labor laws in various ways. It ruled that the companies had to rehire all the striking workers.

Frank Vega, CEO of the two Detroit newspapers, said that the company would use the appeals process "until all strikers left town or died."

The union officials are placing great emphasis on this court process. They recently convinced the NLRB to apply for a "10-J" injunction in federal court--demanding that the Gannet-Knight owners be forced to rehire the strikers immediately. And that is where the courtroom maneuvers now stand. This could be dragged out in court over years--or, some of the workers may get jobs back at the Detroit newspapers sitting next to scabs and working under conditions of the company's choosing.


In many ways what happened to the Detroit strikers is typical of the beating that unionized workers have taken, as the U.S. power structure union-busts, downsizes, and dog-eat-dogs its way to the 21st century. Typical too is the frustration of the workers with the complete inability of their organizations to deal with this situation. But what stands out in this story is the potential for some real sharp class struggle against the monopoly capitalists. You can see it in the determination of the strikers and the outpouring of support in the Detroit area and from workers like them around the country. And in the ruthlessness of the corporate owners, the brutality of their police enforcers, and the corporate bias of the courts--the face of the enemy is also clear. As Engels once said, strikes are a school of war.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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