By: Mark Fitzgerald
Newspapers, unions settle in for what looks like a long strike sp.
BOTH SIDES IN the Detroit newspaper strike ratcheted up the pressure as signs grew through the week that the already bitter labor dispute could become a long one, too.
Though Detroit has seen numerous strikes over the years ? including an epic nine-month walkout that shut down both papers in 1968 ? this one fed speculation both on the picket line and in Wall Street that the Detroit News is not long for this world.
“I believe they wanted this strike,” said Jack Keaton, a Teamsters mailer walking the picket line in front of the News’ downtown offices. “This is Phase II of the JOA [joint operating agreement], with Phase III being the shutting down of one of the papers. This is something we saw coming two years ago.”
One journalism academic ? and longtime Gannett watcher ? agrees the strike portends the end of Detroit as a two-newspaper city.
“I think so, if it’s a prolonged strike,” said John K. Hartman, the Central Michigan University journalism educator and author of the 1992 book The USA Today Way.
“I think Gannett has pretty much had its fill of the Detroit JOA. They lost money there for the first three years, they went through three [JOA] CEOs until they found one who has at least made a modest profit. I think [the surviving paper] is most likely to be the Free Press, which has the most circulation and probably the most prestige around the state,” said Hartman, whose book argues that Gannett bought the News in 1986 only to get access to automotive advertising for its fledgling USA Today.
Executives at Detroit Newspapers, the joint agency that operates Knight-Ridder’s morning Free Press and Gannett’s evening News, vigorously deny any intention to fold the News, despite the continuing shrinking of its circulation.
Detroit Newspapers has certainly shown it plans to continue publishing despite the strike. Since the strike began on the night of July 13, the JOA has used non-union labor ? and a paramilitary-style private security force ? to continue printing a newspaper, despite the walkout of 2,500 workers from six unions.
The company has not missed a day of publication ? but since the second day of the strike it has printed a combined paper called the Detroit News and Free Press that has been thin on both advertising and local news. And union pressure has made distribution a continuing problem.
Strikers ? who represent the vast number of organized newspaper workers from journalists to Teamster mailers and drivers ? claim their own victories, including pledges of advertising boycotts from several big advertisers and a subscription cancellation drive that, at least in its first days, overwhelmed the newspaper’s circulation telephone line.
On Monday, two Teamsters locals asked the National Labor Relations Board to declare the walkout a strike over unfair labor practices, which would prevent the newspapers from hiring permanent replacements.
Even as unions were filing that petition, Knight-Ridder and Gannett were sending journalists from newspapers across the country to work in Detroit.
Tim Kelleher, senior vice president of labor relations for Detroit Newspapers, said of the petition, “The unions, particularly the Teamsters, have filed a lot of unfair labor practices, and this one does not seem to be any more basis than the other ones.”
By mid-week, no bargaining sessions were scheduled and emotions were running high on the picket line ? and inside the tightly secured newspaper facilities.
George Bullard, assistant managing editor for local news at the News, wrote in a column for the combined paper about the verbal abuse picketers have directed against non-union employees.
For their part, some picketing newsroom employees said they have been disturbed by the quality of the management-produced paper ? and a front-page column by Free Press publisher Neal Shine, an employee favorite, that suggested the Newspaper Guild had no real beef with the papers.
“Bashing Neal Shine is like bashing Captain Kangaroo ? you don’t want to do it,” said Free Press writer Neal Rubin as he walked the line in front of the newspaper.
“Everybody loves him, but all the unions are furious. This is not a Teamsters strike. Sure . . . we wouldn’t be out if they were not out because they can stop the paper, but [management offered] no cost-of-living raises at a company where there have been no cost of living raises for six years.”
Guild members walking the line said they were upset by the company proposal ? unilaterally implemented at the News ? to move to a pay system based almost entirely on merit raises determined by editors. But every union has a particular grudge in this strike.
“It was hard for me to reconcile that their people wanted a strike until about a week before [the strike],” said Don Kummer, administrative officer of the 600-member Guild Local 22.
“But they made sure they had hot-button issues with every union, proposals [unions] could not accept. Their goal was to create a strike ? and beyond that I don’t know.”
The strike began 8 p.m. Thursday, July 13 ? 11 days after Detroit Newspapers terminated the contracts of the six unions which had not settled with the JOA.
Contracts of all unions expired April 30 and had been extended on a daily basis through the talks. Detroit Newspapers reached agreement with five unions before the walkout.
On July 5, the Detroit News said it was imposing its last contract proposal in the newsroom: A merit raise pay system that was vigorously opposed by Newspaper Guild Local 22.
According to a News article by Helen Fogel and Mike Casey, the pay plan “reportedly calls for a 1% across-the-board raise in the first year and puts money for an overall 3% raise into a fund for performance-based raises awarded at the discretion of management.”
Probably the biggest sticking point between the JOA and the unions is management’s desire to convert its 2,800 independent carriers into company agents ? a conversion dozens of the nation’s biggest papers have effected in the past decade.
Like these papers, Detroit Newspapers argues it must have control of its own subscriber list and be able to set its own ? and uniform ? home delivery prices.
Teamsters Local 372 members, however, see the plan as an assault on its jobs.
Drivers union spokesman Frank Kortsch says the agent system would mean 59 Teamsters who now oversee home delivery would their jobs.
The first night, strikers claimed they had effectively shut down the newspapers.
Detroit Newspapers said it printed 120,000 copies of the Free Press ? whose average daily circulation is 531,825 ? and 30,000 copies of the afternoon News, whose daily circulation in the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations reporting period was 354,403.
There was no home delivery and news accounts from Detroit indicated that few copies made it to newsboxes or stores.
On July 14, the JOA said it would print only a combined edition for the duration of the strike. The papers are normally combined on Saturdays, Sundays and a few holidays.
Some 150,000 copies of the combined edition were printed July 14, but again there was no home delivery and only spotty single-copy distribution. Detroit Newspapers announced July 14 that the Detroit News’ staff of about 80 non-union editorial employees would be responsible for the news, sports and business sections while the smaller Free Press staff of about 40 non-union editorial workers would be responsible for features.
July 14 was also the last time the JOA discussed the size of its press run.
On Saturday, July 15, Detroit Newspapers claimed that it had distributed 241,000 copies of the combined edition ? including 40,000 copies in home delivery. Average circulation of the normal combined Saturday paper is 823,310.
By Sunday, July 16, that number had risen to 700,000 copies. Circulation is normally 1,107,645.
Detroit Newspapers vice president of market development Susie Ellwood reported gains in home delivery circulation this week. On Tuesday, July 18, she said, the paper distributed 557,000 copies, including 261,000 home delivery copies. Home delivery normally runs about 501,000 copies on weekdays, she said.
Ellwood also said carriers had managed to deliver to 80 of 105 single-copy routes.
A random spot check of convenience stores and book stores in metropolitan Detroit on July 17 showed distribution was spotty at best. Some stores, such as the Little Professor Newsstand in Sterling Heights, refused to carry the paper.
At other stands, such as the Snack ‘N Smokes in downtown Detroit, there were plenty of papers, but customers were shunning them, according to a cashier who declined to give his name. Sales were brisk at the airport, however, which sold out by mid-morning.
There were reports of scattered and minor outbreaks of violence and vandalism from the picketing that involved 45 offices, production facilities and distribution centers.
Teamster spokesman Kortsch said two strikers were injured on July 14 by vans carrying workers through picket lines in Mundy Township and at the Sterling Heights printing plant.
On July 15, two newspaper carriers reported that their vehicles had been vandalized, apparently by strikers. One reported a threat to her family. Police in suburban Warren charged two Teamsters with robbery in an incident in which two carriers reported being intimidated into dropping their load of papers.
Fourteen strikers were arrested in the first two days of the strike, and picketer attempts to stop trucks from leaving the Sterling Heights distribution center were rebuffed by private guards in full riot gear.
Security was tight at all newspaper facilities, with every other guard, it sometimes seemed, armed with a video camera. For their part, strikers, too, seemed to tape nearly every shouting match.
Union leaders condemned the violence and said they were concentrating on encouraging community support.
Strikers logged hours on the phone, urging advertisers to boycott the newspaper.
Though the union claimed some victories in a city with a rich labor history, they could not persuade the papers’ biggest advertisers.
Hudson’s, the market’s biggest department store chain, announced even before the strike that it would continue to advertise.
Similarly, Kroger’s, a major supermarket chain, said it would not withhold its ads.
However, the Oakland Press reported that Farmer Jack, another big supermarket chain, was pulling its full-page ROP ads, which have been a mainstay of both newspapers.
Guild administrative officer Kummer said the union intended to start an online paper. Kummer also said the guild was investigating whether the combined editions of the newspaper violated the JOA, which won federal approval in 1989.
Detroit Newspapers’ Kelleher, however, said the agency had won approval from the Justice Department for the combined strike editions before the walkout.
“The unions have no right to call a strike and then say we can’t do a combined edition while they are striking. That makes absolutely no sense,” Kelleher said.
Throughout the week both sides claimed they were ready to talk ? but nothing was scheduled.
In the meantime, positions continue to harden.
Walking a picket line under the broiling sun Monday outside the fortified Sterling Heights distribution center ? where picketers say the barbed-wire-topped fencing is just a year old ? mailer Gary Zerilli said enough is enough.
“We were making concessions, concession after concession. We had manning cuts. Schedule flexibility. We said, O.K., we’ll do it. But over the past three months I could see all they wanted was confrontation,” he said.
“My grandfather worked here,” the 20-year veteran said.
“My father still works here ? he’s in management. I’ve been going to this paper since I was a baby. But I’ve never been so bitter.”
Since the second day of the strike, the company has printed a combined paper called the Detroit News and Free Press that has been thin on both advertising and local news.
?(Since the second day of the strike, the company has printed a combined paper called the Detroit News and Free Press that has been this on both advertising and local news) [Photo]