By: Mark Fitzgerald
Both sides claim victories in five-week-old newspaper strike;
but negotiation is at a standstill with no talks scheduled sp.
BOTH UNIONS AND management could claim gains as the strike against Detroit’s two daily newspapers continued into its fifth week with no talks scheduled.
On the one hand, Detroit Newspapers ? the joint operating agency for Gannett’s Detroit News and Knight-Ridder’s Detroit Free Press ? lost a big insert account, putting a damper on its claim that widespread distribution of the combined News and Free Press paper would lure back advertisers driven away by the strike of 2,500 workers July 13.
On the other hand, cracks in union solidarity appeared as at least 20 Newspaper Guild members crossed the picket line ? and almost 50 Free Press journalists urged their union negotiators to go back to the bargaining table.
Publicly, the unions are pleased with the way the strike is going ? and indeed they have some things to be pleased about.
Some 232 businesses have either pulled their advertisements or pledged not to run ads during the strike, said Lou Mleczko, stet president of Detroit Newspaper Guild Local 22.
Unions were cheered July 31 when Sears, Roebuck and Co. announced it was pulling its twice-weekly advertising inserts from struck paper.
A spokesman, Ronald Culp, said the retail chain was concerned about the extent of distribution of the newspaper and would switch the inserts to direct mail.
Sears will, however, continue to run its less extensive ROP display ads, the spokesman said. But the unions ? especially the Guild ? had to be concerned about increasing grumbling in their ranks. Some of the Free Press Guild members who signed the open letter asking for a return to bargaining have since crossed the picket line ? and several more have told colleagues they may also return to work if the strike drags on.
Among the strikers who have returned to the Free Press are columnist Bob Talbert and cartoonist Richard Guindon.
In an argument that echoes the case made by management, some journalists say that they see the strike as a fight mostly between the Teamsters and Detroit Newspapers with the Guild having little stake in the outcome.
“My own feelings are that I’m just appalled by the notion that we have to be chained to the Teamsters on this,” said Free Press television critic Mike Duffy, who organized the open letter. “Personally, I’ve been upset by the lowest-common-denominator approach on the picket line, the emotionalism, the shagging of [Free Press publisher] Neal Shine, the vandalism.”
Duffy said a meeting between letter signers and the Guild leaders broke up in acrimony and left him convinced “the leadership just is not being responsive.”
Guild leaders and many members, however, say the main negotiating hang-up ? management insistence on replacing across-the-board wage increases with merit pay raises determined by supervisors ? more than justifies a strike. About 100 Guild members signed another open letter supporting the union position.
Guild president Mleczko dismissed as “not significant” the actions of News business columnist Jon Pepper, who attacked the union position in an open letter and a front-page column, and crossed the picket line with several business-beat colleagues July 27.
“We will not support a continuation of this strike and its regrettable tactics regarding advertisers and subscribers. Nor will we be a party to the criminal behavior of our militant brethren in the Teamsters, whose violent behavior suggests an inability to otherwise persuade by virtue of reason . . . There is no possibility of victory in the strategy our Guild has pursued,” Pepper wrote, referring to the strike and advertising and circulation boycotts.
“We expected that,” Guild President Mleczko said. “We were surprised he honored the picket line [at all]. His whole philosophy is vehemently anti-union, not just the Guild, any union.”
Mleczko noted that prominent columnists on both papers ? the News’ Pete Waldmeir, for instance, or Free Press sports columnist Mitch Albom ? remain out.
Albom and others have written for the unions’ electronic strike news-
paper, the Detroit Journal. The paper’s address is http://www.rust.net/workers/strike.html.
The News began its own electronic newspaper the day the strike began, rushing a project it had just begun to develop. The News electronic paper is located at http://detnews.com.
Detroit Newspapers reported it distributed 924,000 copies of its Sunday July 30 edition, with 547,000 of those home-delivered. Sunday circulation before the strike averaged 1,107,645.
Susie Ellwood, vice president of market development for Detroit Newspapers, said the agency would not immediately release distribution figures day by day because the figures could not include the number of returns. She said the number of returns on previously released distribution figures were not available.
Ellwood expressed confidence, however, that the distribution would persuade advertisers to come back.
Guild president Mleczko, however, said the unions are convinced the paper is not distributed as widely as Detroit Newspapers claims.
“Our best guess based on [striking Teamster] district managers and some cooperative Detroit Newspapers phone people is that there have been 300,000 cancellations of subscriptions,” he said.
“Their idea of circulation is bizarre to say the least,” Mleczko said. In addition to the unions’ observations, there is “the fact that advertisers themselves are not buying the numbers,” he said.
Minor violence continued at the newspapers’ Sterling Heights distribution center, where a pickup truck was firebombed July 30.
Five striking journalists, including 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Freedman, were hurt when their car was struck by a drunk driver as they returned from picketing at the downtown News offices.