A War Of Attrition p. 8

By: Mark Fitzgerald AT SOME POINT in April, the strike that began last July 13 by production, editorial and circulation workers against the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press will turn into the longest newspaper strike ever in the Motor City.
That's saying something in Detroit. As local journalist Bryan Gruley noted in his book Paper Losses, between 1955 and 1967 alone there were more than 100 labor stoppages at Detroit newspapers, including a 134-day strike in 1964.
Just three years later, on Nov. 16, 1967, Teamsters walked off their jobs at the News and kicked off the mother of all Detroit newspapers strikes, a bitter and costly dispute that shut down both papers and was not settled until the following August.
It's a sure bet, however, that the current strike against the two newspapers and their joint operating agency, Detroit Newspapers, will eclipse even that strike for longevity and cost, both financially and emotionally.
Right now, the unions and the newspapers are locked in a grinding combat that is ironically reminiscent of the costly newspaper war the two papers fought for decades until their corporate owners, Knight-Ridder Inc. and Gannett Co., agreed to a JOA that was supposed to stop the bleeding and build ever-increasing profits.
"This is a war of attrition," Frank Vega, the president and chief executive officer of Detroit Newspapers, said in an interview recently.
Despite suffering a walkout from the six unions ? including Teamsters ? who represent nearly all the papers' organized employees, the Free Press and the News have yet to miss an issue since the beginning of the strike. Since September, they have even managed to publish separate papers ? which grow visibly thicker month after month.
By the end of this year, or the first quarter of 1997, the Detroit JOA will begin making money again, Vega says.
There were also some early fissures in the unions' united front: By the end of the summer, nearly half of the journalists represented by Newspaper Guild Local 22 had returned to their jobs to work alongside newly hired newsroom employees.
But the newspapers achieved this at a tremendous cost. The papers estimate they lost about $100 million in 1995 because of the strike. Circulations of both papers, which had already been falling steadily since the JOA was implemented in 1989, plummeted sharply ? although how much, like many things in this strike, is a matter of dispute between the union and newspapers.
The newspapers say the morning Free Press has a daily circulation of about 400,000, the afternoon News about 275,000 and the combined Sunday paper 875,000. That would represent a drop of about 24% compared with numbers one year ago ? and even from the distribution claims Detroit Newspapers made early in the strike, when it routinely maintained it had printed and distributed "close to a million" copies of the Sunday paper.
Detroit Newspapers has declined to submit its circulation figures for an Audit Bureau of Circulations audit, and the unions ? and, increasingly, competing suburban newspapers ? maintain the numbers are exaggerated. The unions can take much of the credit for the circulation falloff ? and their advertising boycott campaign still can claim successes eight months later.
And despite the early defection from Newspaper Guild journalists, very few production workers crossed their unions' picket line. Eight months later, union solidarity appears to be as much a fact as a slogan. Of the 600 full-time and part-time union mailers, for example, only four have returned to work at the newspapers, according to the local's secretary/treasurer Jim St. Louis.
Meanwhile, officials of the unions and newspapers occasionally meet across a bargaining table, although there is never any progress reported.

In this war of nerves, both sides say it is the other guy who will blink first.
"They never thought for a moment that we had 250,000 subscriptions we could pull the switch on," Jim St. Louis, secretary/treasurer of Detroit Mailers Union, said in the offices of the Teamsters local down the street from Tiger Stadium. "From the very beginning, we have had a hard core of people devoting themselves to this strike."
"The unions totally miscalculated our resolve in this situation," said Detroit Newspapers chief Vega, chain-smoking in his own office in the Detroit News building downtown.
"This," Vega added, "is the most ill-conceived strike in the history of the newspaper business."
Similarly, both sides blame the other for starting the strike.
Union members portray the company as spoiling for a fight. With each local, the unions say, the newspapers found a hot-button issue and pushed it relentlessly.
This is how the unions see it: Despite several years of forgoing raises and agreeing to job reductions in an effort to get the JOA going, once Detroit Newspapers began to make money ? about $56 million in 1994 ? the agency refused to bargain seriously.
"I think they thought they could crush us and we'd return [to work] immediately. But never in my wildest dreams did I think that here in Michigan, the home of labor, that a company would really try to break a union like they have," said striking mailer Jim Boucher, sounding a theme repeated by official and rank-and-file members alike.
For more than a year before the strike, union members say, the newspapers prepared: fencing off the main Sterling Heights production plant and hiring a security firm, Vance International, that specializes in labor disputes and recruiting replacement workers.
But that doesn't mean the newspaper wanted a strike, Vega argues.
"Nothing could be further from the truth. Usually you feel if you are prepared, it's a deterrent," Vega said. "Look, I come from Florida, and when we get hurricane warnings, we take preparations. But nobody accused us of wanting a hurricane."
Instead, Vega blames the strike on "inept" union leaders ? and on the extravagant demands of the Teamsters.
"The Teamsters were trying to extort $71 million out of us, $71 million over three years. These newspapers in their history have never made $71 million in three years . . . . They just had this attitude, this is Detroit, we're entitled to featherbed," Vega said.
Vega and other executives portray the strike now as a golden opportunity to do all the things they say union work rules prevented in the past: more zoning for advertisers, more efficient production manning and more nimble reactions to market forces.
"We would have waited three or four more contracts to get to where this strike has gotten us," Vega said. "We did not want to revolutionize this thing ? but we are not going back to where we were."
And the high initial financial losses are being reduced dramatically, Detroit Newspapers claim. Without offering numbers, Vega concurred with the suggestion that each month's loss is half the previous one's.
But unions mock the idea that there is anything enviable in the newspapers' situation. They say, for instance, that Free Press and News circulation is down far further than Detroit Newspapers acknowledges, offering as evidence internal press run documents from the Sterling Heights plant and anecdotes of papers dumped or delivered despite repeated demands by customers to cancel subscriptions.
The unions periodically embarrass the JOA by publicizing the findings of large numbers of baled papers that apparently went unsold and unread direct from the Sterling Heights plant to a recycling center or ditch. Last Dec. 5, a Department of Public Works supervisor for the city of Farmington Hills wrote to Detroit Newspapers complaining that "members of your staff have been dropping off bundles of undistributed newspapers at the city of Farmington Hills drop-off recycling center" in violation of rules limiting its use to noncommercial residents. In its Feb. 14-20 issue, the alternative newspaper in Detroit, the Metro Times, reported that the Media Audit, a syndicated readership service of National Demographics of Houston, Texas, found that readership had fallen substantially over the period from just before the strike started to last November and December. The Free Press was down 29.84%; the News down 27.32% and the combined Sunday paper was down 32.63%, according to an account of the report by Metro Times columnist Ric Bohy.
And in a city synonymous with labor, the Detroit papers find themselves, in the words of Vega, "pretty much an island onto ourselves, like John Donne."
The papers have lost legal advertising from government bodies, are periodically upbraided by local religious leaders and are facing hearings on six unfair labor practices related to negotiations so far.
"Look, get this right, because I've been misquoted on it so many times, but there is no question in my mind ? because this is Detroit ? we probably have a snowball's chance in hell of those charges not being upheld here. None of the unfair labor practice charges hold any water," Vega said.
If the National Labor Relations Board finds that the Detroit strike was provoked by unfair labor practices, Detroit Newspapers could be ordered to return the strikers to their former positions.
Vega and other newspaper executives say that won't happen.
"Don't call them replacement workers anymore: They are my permanent employees," Vega said.
"If [the unions] are hung up on the replacement worker issues, this probably is a long, long way from settlement," said Detroit News editor and publisher Robert H. Giles. "We have a new group here [in the newsroom] who are bright, energetic and pleased to come here to a big newspaper."
"I must be loyal to the people who helped preserve our future," said Free Press publisher Heath Meriwether.
All three executives are also at pains to emphasize that the workers hired to replace strikers are a more demographically diverse group.
"Prestrike, those [production workers] were 80% white, 18% black, 76% male and 15% were Detroit residents," Meriwether told a recent community meeting in Detroit.
"[Now] 57% are white, 38% black, 4% Hispanic. 60% are male and 39% are Detroit residents."
Rather than applause, however, Meriwether's statistics sparked an angry riposte from Crawford Webb, a striking circulation district manager, and an African American.
"As a black man and an employee of the Detroit Free Press for 20 years, I resent the race card that is being played by this management," Webb said.
So far, however, none of the union pressure or the financial losses appear to have budged the Detroit papers.
Certainly, in eight months, they have quieted the speculation that the strike might lead to the folding of one of the papers.
"That never made any sense," News editor and publisher Giles said. Before the strike, he said, the papers had a duplicate issue of just 6%. If one were removed from the market, "It would be just a downward spiral of lost circulation and penetration."
Neither is the management side softening its comments.
"Unfortunately, I don't think the union leaders know how to negotiate from this point," Vega said. "They took 2,000 people and put them on the pass line-and they crapped out."
?("If [the unions] are hung up on the replacement worker issues, this probably is a long, long way from settlement. "We have a new group here [in the newsroom] who are bright, energetic and pleased to come here to a big newspaper.") [Caption]
?(? Robert Giles, editor and publisher, Detroit News) [Photo & Caption]
?("Unfortunately, I don't think the union leaders knwo how to negotiate from this point. They took 2,000 people and put them on the pas line-and they crapped out.") [Caption]
?(-Frank Vega) [Photo]


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