By: mark fitzgerald
SIXTEEN MONTHS INTO the Detroit newspaper strike, the papers and their joint-operating agency continue to send pink slips to striking employees for actions on picket lines or at demonstrations.
So far, about 165 striking employees have been terminated, said Susie Ellwood, vice president of marketing development for Detroit Newspapers, agency for the Knight-Ridder-owned Detroit Free Press and Gannett Co.’s Detroit News.
When the strike by 2,500 employees in six unions began July 13, 1995, dozens of workers, most from production or distribution unions, were terminated following violent incidents at picket sites.
But strikers and their sympathizers charge that more recently the newspapers have begun firing strikers for participating in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience that the paper’s editorial pages admire when performed out of town for other causes.
About 30 employees recently received termination notices, for instance, after blocking the front door of the Detroit News during a Labor Day weekend rally. Arrested at the nonviolent demonstration were such prominent strike supporters as Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney and the Newspaper Guild’s International president, Linda Foley.
Striking Free Press reporter Robert Ourlian was among those who joined the demonstration. Even though he was not arrested, he received a termination notice a couple of weeks later.
“For a half-hour, we engage in a completely symbolic and harmless example of civil disobedience ? and for that I’m fired,” said Ourlian, a member of the Newspaper Guild local’s bargaining committee.
Shawn Ellis, a striking Teamster driver, said the demonstration did not prevent any employee from entering the building.
“They turned off electricity to the door. They had plywood on it, and they told employees not to use the door. It was clear it was not going to be used for egress and ingress,” Ellis said.
Ellis, too, has been fired for what his termination notice called “egregious” actions.
For Ellis and Ourlian, the recent notifications were their second terminations. Multiple termination letters are common, one union officer says.
“We’ve had people who have gotten up to four terminations,” said Jim St. Louis, secretary/treasurer for Detroit Mailers Local 2040. The most prominent recent termination was of Susan Watson, a 30-year Free Press employee who was a news columnist when she went on strike.
Watson wrote in her column in the strikers’ Detroit Sunday Journal that she intends to hang the termination letter on her wall next to journalism awards and commendations.
“The dismissals weren’t about journalism,” Watson wrote. “They were about money. About power. About greed. The firings were motivated by the kind of insensitivity and arrogance that would strip the receiving blanket off a worker’s baby to weave a sweater for the boss’ pet dog.”
Detroit Newspapers’ Ellwood said the dismissals ? only a “handful” of which have gone to editorial employees ? are not made casually.
“They’re not usually done immediately,” she said. “We review the evidence where there is concern. It’s a careful and thoughtful process.”
Multiple termination letters, Ellwood added, do not mean an employee has been fired twice, but serve as notice of incidents since the first dismissal.
There have been plenty of opportunities for the terminations as demonstrations and civil disobedience escalated in recent weeks.
Fifteen people, not all of them employees, were arrested Oct. 16 when they entered six suburban news bureaus and used noisemakers to disrupt operations. Arrests were made at three of the bureaus targeted by a group called Friends of Labor.
On Oct. 6, strikers and supporters also staged “walk-throughs” at several stores that advertise in the newspapers. That same day, strikers marched in front of a replacement worker’s home in Sterling Heights, Mich., in defiance of the city’s new ordinance intended to prevent picketing in residential areas. There were no arrests.
Things have been far quieter at the bargaining table. “Meetings are scheduled,” Ellwood said in late October. “We’ve met with the Guild. We’ve got a meeting set with the pressmen, and a couple of meetings scheduled with the Teamsters. “I wouldn’t describe [the talks] as progressive.”
Al Young, president of the mailers union, described the talks more bluntly: “The union’s come up with [proposals] ? the company’s come up with nothing.”
Young carries with him a copy of the union’s last contract with Detroit Newspapers. Page after page of text is crossed out with a blue marker: representing, he says, the parts of the contract the newspapers want eliminated. Management’s most recent proposals, Young said, included eliminating progressive discipline and a wage proposal of $8 an hour, half of the $16.16 specified in the expired contract.
The company has actually escalated demands for givebacks, Young said, adding, “At the table, their behavior is not geared to resolution.”
In another development, Detroit Newspapers has begun printing again at its Riverfront plant near downtown Detroit. Since the strike, the plant had been used only on one occasion, and there was speculation the facility might be closed. Knight-Ridder built the plant in 1979 when its Detroit Free Press was in the middle of an intense competition with the News, then owned by the Evening News Association. A company newsletter said the plant was being reopened to meet greater demands for zoning.
?(Police confront demonstrators at Gannett Co. printing plant in Port Huron, Mich., where 27 were arrested.) [Photo & Caption]
?( Police arrest Teamsters officials at Detroit Free Press bureau in Royal Oak, Mich.) [Photo & caption]