Motown ‘97

by Tom Lewiston


In one of Labor’s historic strongholds and the birthplace of the United Auto Workers’ Union war has again been declared on the working class. Near Flint, Michigan the city made famous by the sit-down strikes of the 1930s and the organizing by the CIO in the auto industry, the war against working people continues unabated with corporate determination to break the Unions representing 2,000 locked-out newspaper workers. Frank Vega, the locally based CEO for two national newspaper giants, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, has stated the company would continue to use appeals processes until all strikers left town or died, according to the Detroit Sunday Journal.

For nearly two years local unions and labor activists have appealed to the new leadership of the AFL/CIO to join this battle. After a protracted organizing campaign within labor the new leadership of the AFL/CIO belatedly joined the struggle of the locked out newspaper workers in Detroit and issued a nationwide call for a mass demonstration and rally. Over 100,000 trade unionists from 45 states, Canada, England, and France eagerly answered the call and assembled in Detroit in late June in a show of solidarity with the 2,000 locked out newspaper workers from the Detroit News and Free Press, owned respectively by Gannett and Knight-Ridder.

In July 1995 the members of the six unions representing the workers at the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News voted to strike, after sacrificing numerous concessions in previous negotiations that had led to the elimination of over 1,000 jobs and increased the profits of the combined newspapers by $56 million. The companies were well prepared, and according to an administrative law judge for the National Labor Relations Board, forced the strike. The same judge ruled that the union’s unconditional offer to return to work in February 1997 and the company’s refusal then made the strike a lockout.

Gannett and Knight-Ridder were prepared for a struggle. In the months leading up to July 1995 the newspapers hired Vance Security, one of the international private security firms often hired to provide "security" during labor disputes. Together the papers reportedly hired some 1,200 thugs from Vance and began working closely with local law enforcement. In fact the papers worked so closely with the local law enforcement agencies that they payed the overtime costs of the Sterling Heights, Michigan police force. Sterling Heights is the location of the distribution center for both newspapers.

Gannett took the lead in labor negotiations, which were handled by executives from corporate headquarters and not local management. Gannett has demonstrated by its actions that their interests were in breaking the union and not in resolving the labor dispute. In December 1995 Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer intervened and offered the assistance of his office in round the clock negotiations. The local CEO, Frank Vega, accepted the mayor’s offer. Upon hearing the news the two Gannett corporate negotiators returned to Detroit, quashed the negotiations, and promptly told the mayor "you’re an outsider and we don’t arbitrate."

While Gannett and Knight-Ridder spout the usual line of needing to cut costs to remain competitive, the strike has revealed a contradictory picture. Since the strike began Knight-Ridder has spent more than $1.6 billion in acquiring four more non-union newspapers and the unions put the locked-out related losses for both corporations in the hundreds of million of dollars.

The rank and file are fighting back, however. With financial support from their international Unions the striking workers have started their own weekly newspaper, the Detroit Sunday Journal. The Journal has gained a strong foothold in the community taking readers and advertisers away from the News and Free Press. The success of the Sunday Journal has not gone unnoticed by Gannett and Knight-Ridder.

According to locked-out Teamster Local 372 member Larry Skwarczynski the News and Free Press have rehired 38 printers in an effort to eliminate the necessary skills from the Sunday Journal and maintain their monopoly. The rehired printers have not been given any work to do since returning to their former jobs but instead have been told that they can sleep, but not on the floor or, read a book. Their limited activities are monitored by management.

The few other workers who have been rehired since the unconditional offer to return to work, approximately 209 to date, report that they are forbidden to talk about the strike and those workers who staff the telephones have been given scripts to use that misrepresent to callers that the strike is over. Their phone conversations are monitored and any deviation from the script is met with the immediate firing of the "violator." The two papers have also installed 300 surveillance cameras to monitor workers in other parts of the plant, Skwarczynski states.

Further, according to Skwarczynski, Gannett and Knight-Ridder have torn a page from the labor relations handbook of Henry Ford and have gone into the minority neighborhoods of Detroit, falsely telling community and church leaders that they would hire unemployed residents and train them for jobs at the newspapers. Reportedly recruiters from the News and Free Press stated that they were doing this now because the Union’s had blocked such job opportunities in the past.

Jubilant marchers celebrate ruling by National Labor Relations Board

The marchers were jubilant and determined because of a decision the previous day by an administrative law judge who determined that Gannett and Knight-Ridder were guilty of 10 out of 12 unfair labor practices. Further, the judge ordered Gannett and Knight-Ridder to immediately rehire the locked out workers even if it meant "displacing the replacement workers."

Amid chants of "this is a union town and we won’t let them tear it down" and "hey, hey ho, ho the scabs have got to go" and "no scab papers" the march stretched for more than a mile and convened in Hart Plaza. For well over 30 minutes both newspaper buildings were besieged and nearly encircled by angry, chanting legions of working men and women from all walks of life.

March participants included, for example, the Pittsburgh Newspaper Unity Council, public school teachers, mine workers, auto workers, steel workers, teamsters, service employees, public employees, the United Farm Workers, the International Workers of the World, and newspaper workers. This writer traveled by bus with the newspaper workers from Pittsburgh who formed a unity council among the different unions in Pittsburgh, PA before the expiration of their Labor contract in 1994.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL/CIO talked to the assembled crowd about the "basic values all of us cherish. Fairness, honesty, decency, compassion and loyalty." Sweeney went on to thank the locked-out newspaper workers for "fighting our fight," and "this fight is now our fight."

Ron Carey, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, talked about the various Labor leaders "who have kept the faith." Carey went on say that "we are here to let not only Gannett and Knight-Ridder but every corporation know that we won’t back down and we won’t go away." And we "would continue to shine the light on corporate greed."

Another speaker told the crowd that we were there to demand justice and that "without justice there would be no peace."

Neil Abercrombie, a Congressman from Hawaii and the only national politician to speak at the rally, urged the assembled army "you’ve got to organize now, you’ve got to put it together so that people are registered, so that every Union family not only in Detroit, not only in Michigan, but across the United States of America is coming out in November and see to it that working men and women go back and take the Congress of the United States for working people." I’m sure that the Congressman thinks that the democrats are the party of working people but it was the same democratic party that gave working people NAFTA and GATT.

Rich Trumpka, the Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL/CIO, said "our message is this, we’re breathing down your necks and its just a matter of time before your butt’s in our back pocket. We march and rally today to send a message from six fighting local Unions to every Gannett and Knight-Ridder executive and board member that our message is this, no matter who you are, no matter where you are, this fight is your fight now, you can run but you can’t hide. Wherever you are we’ll be there."

While there was a lot of rhetoric about corporate greed, peace and justice none of the speakers talked about economic power and what has allowed workers to be relegated to these positions of powerlessness. There was no criticism about the current political structure and the unwillingness of Democrats or Republicans to pass striker replacement legislation or to reform Taft-Hartley in an effort to restore some semblance of balance of power between labor and management. The most basic organizing principles were completely overlooked. With an army of over 100,000 ready to do battle not one request was made to do anything once we left. No follow-up events or demonstrations were announced and the names and addresses of those assembled were not collected. We were left without any means of carrying forward the energy that was generated by the march. From conversations with rank and file union members it was apparent that their expectations and vision of a movement for social change exceeded the willingness of the leadership to take the battle to the corporations. Perhaps, the union leadership could best lead by following the rank and file as they did with this demonstration.

You can help by showing your support for the locked-out workers in your own community. Don’t buy or read a Gannett or Knight-Ridder paper or call Lockout headquarters at (313) 965-2347.