Detroit Paper and the GM Strike: Picking At A Scab

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

To some people the editorials Tuesday in the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News scolding the United Auto Workers (UAW) for daring to strike GM might simply be puzzling official opinions to try to sell in a big union town.

In Philadelphia Daily News senior writer Will Bunch’s provocative “Attytood” blog entry Tuesday, it’s more evidence of newspapers’ death wish, as they side with corporations against middle class people. Bunch summarizes the Detroit News piece thusly: “Shut up and do what you benevolent masters seek of you.” The Freep opinion (as described elsewhere at E&P Online) is hardly more sympathetic to a workforce that built Detroit.

“Instead of connecting with the rank-and-file,” Bunch writes, “many big newspapers are already focusing on what they call ‘niche’ publications, but what they really mean is something that, to paraphrase Barbara Bush, almost rhymes with ‘niche,’ and that’s ‘rich.'”

He’s surely on to something, but in Detroit, where memories of labor struggles like the Sit-Down Strike at GM’s plant in Flint are as alive as Joe Hill, there’s something more going on here, too, I think.

[UPDATE: The union and General Motors reached an agreement early Wednesday, ending the two-day strike. The key provision is a health care trust that would ease G.M.?s massive liability.]

The News and the Freep — not to talk of the many newsroom, production, and circulation workers and their families — still bear the scars of the strike the joint operating agreement of Gannett Co. and Knight Ridder provoked on July 13, 1995. The UAW wasn’t one of the unions that walked out that day — but for all its long involvement with the newspaper strikers, it might as well have been.

It took 135 days for the strike to became the longest labor dispute in Detroit newspaper history — but it was the most bitter almost immediately.

The newspapers prepared as for war, and the six unions representing about 2,000 people occasionally responded in kind. Those early days were filled with skirmishes at the gates of the Sterling Heights plant. Beefy Teamsters and press operators would try to physically block delivery trucks, while Vance International security guards, spoiling for a fight in (literal) jackboots, pushed back with an undisguised relish, letting loose with Mace from time to time.

The JOA then-chief Frank Vega, who never seemed to take personally the union vilification, would show off a little museum of mayhem he kept in his office, with various sizes of “star nails” crafted to keep one nail point up to puncture delivery truck tires. The papers played their own hardball apart from their Vance muscle, firing union members on what often was phantom evidence of “violence” on the picket line.

When the unions surrendered unconditionally on Valentine’s Day 1996 and offered to return to work, management formally accepted the offer — but refused to give back the jobs taken by “replacement workers.” So the dispute dragged on for another four and a half years.

In all that time, the UAW was one of the most ardent supporters of the newspaper workers.

Lou Mleczko, the executive director of the Detroit Newspaper Guild Local 22, recalled Thursday that UAW aid ranged from subsidizing the Sunday Journal strike paper, “adopting” strikers and their families with substantial financial assistance, organizing subscription boycotts, and even handing out $200 in cash to all strikers on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Then-UAW President Stephen Yokich led numerous rallies in front of the Free Press and News buildings.

A dozen years after the walkout, it may be that the UAW is still more bitter about the strike than the Guild, which last June reached another contract with the JOA, now 95% run by Gannett Co., with MediaNews Group operating the News under essentially a management fee.

“If anything, it’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” Mleczko said of the hostility the UAW and other non-newspaper unions hold for the News and the Freep.

To this day, the News and Freep newspaper boxes that the UAW had removed from Big Three plants at the beginning of the 1995 — either by agreement with automaker management, or by continual vandalism and theft — have not returned to the plants, Mleczko said.

Union-organized subscription and ad boycott campaigns cut the combined circulation of both papers by 30% during the strike — and the numbers never really came back. The strike cost the papers $100 million in its first year, the JOA said at the time, though it returned to profitability soon thereafter.

Many union members continue to boycott the papers because the JOA has refused in negotiations to restore the requirement that employees join the union that represents their work.

“To this day whenever I meet with other union leaders, which I do frequently, they will not subscribe as long as we have an open shop because they don’t consider that to be an equitable or fair contract,” Mleczko said.

The hostile editorials are no surprise either to union members and supporters in southeast Michigan. The editorial pages of both papers, but especially the traditionally conservative News, have been poking their finger in labor’s eye ever since the strike.

This Labor Day, of all times, the News argued that Michigan should adopt so-called “right-to-work” laws that are anathema to unions. “Too many workers are trapped against their will in unions they were forced to join by state and federal laws that support compulsory union membership and automatic dues deductions,” the News wrote.

Like the Philadelphia Daily News’ Bunch, Mleczko sees a direct local connection to dropping circulation and the editorial page hostility to labor.

“Talk about turning a tin ear to their constituency,” Mleczko said. “They don’t see the connection. They openly insult the intelligence of hundreds of thousands of union member in southeast Michigan with crap like that — and then they’re surprised (union members and supporters) don’t want to read them.”

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