What Went Wrong in Detroit? Business-as-Usual Unionism Lost the Newspaper Strike

Nearly one thousand newspaper workers in Seattle walked off the job November 21 after The Detroit newspaper strike is over. Management won.

All six locals have voted for contracts that include “merit pay” and the open shop. Fired workers are still fired, awaiting their individual days in court.

Detroiters have lived this strike for five and a half years, on the picket line, at ox roasts, on the sidewalk in front of executives’ homes. At a party recently, John Joslin, an IBEW member and tireless strike supporter, related how frustrating it had been to hawk the strikers’ newspaper, the Sunday Journal. Not because people didn’t want to buy it, but because he couldn’t answer certain questions.

John said: “Black people and white people were lining up to buy the Sunday Journal. One old guy came up and says, ‘I was at Briggs [an auto plant, scene of big battles in the 1930s]. Don’t you understand? They are trying to destroy what we built. Don’t you know they’re going to get rough? I don’t know what you people are thinking. You’ve got to stop production, young man, you’ve got to stop production.’

“Another old guy says, ‘Why don’t you blockade the [printing] plant? Why don’t you take your cars around there, throw the keys away and blockade the son of a bitch?’ I said, ‘Well, the people are going to get ticketed, they don’t want to get tickets.’”

That sums it up: drastic action was needed, but union leaders didn’t want to get tickets. The decisions that sealed the newspaper workers’ fate were essentially made back in September 1995.


Seven weeks into the strike, on a Saturday evening, thousands of strikers and supporters massed at the gates of the Sterling Heights printing plant, determined to prevent scab trucks from exiting with the lucrative Sunday edition.

The mood was marvelous. UAW members, in particular, who had undergone 15 years of downsizing and speed-up with little resistance, were out in force, ready for a fight on behalf of fellow union members they’d barely heard of before now. It was a display of solidarity not seen in Detroit in decades.

Even with no organized leadership, a big group stayed out all night, standing in the driveway. The trucks were blocked, and not many copies of the Sunday edition ever got out. The next Saturday night, strikers and supporters were back again, facing the tear gas and billy clubs of the Sterling Heights police. Management used helicopters to airlift token newspapers past the melee.

After that, the company got an injunction that limited picketing. Union officials complied. The newspapers, which paid for riot training and overtime for the Sterling Heights police, never missed a day of publication. And all the unions’ subsequent efforts never re-created the sense of crisis and unity--nor effectiveness--that existed outside the plant gates on those nights in 1995. The troops had been there, but they were sent home.

“There’s no doubt the energy was there,” said one union insider. “The local labor movement was prepared to provide assistance. They just never got the call.”


What would it have taken to win this strike? First, any criticism of the blunders of the Detroit unions must be tempered by the fact that, no matter what they did, this would have been a tough fight to win. The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press are only small pieces of two corporate empires, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, that are largely non-union. If this had been a purely local struggle, the unions’ impressive circulation and advertising boycotts would have brought the papers to the table. But both parent companies were willing to sustain big losses in order to bust unions in Detroit—once considered labor’s stronghold--while remaining profitable elsewhere.

It must also be said that in some ways the three international unions involved---the Teamsters, CWA, and GCIU--provided more aid to this strike than unions usually do. The internationals sent staffers to Detroit and poured millions into strike pay and the Sunday Journal. Teams of strikers were sent to dog corporate board members and spoke at union meetings across the country.

But facing corporate intransigence and deep pockets, the unions’ only hope was to create a political crisis in the city, one big enough that both the local power structure and far-off CEOs would feel the heat. One CWA staffer, Ron Ruth, argued for this view, and was told to shut up or lose his job. If the unions had asked their allies for help, and the allies had responded, massive protests and civil disobedience just might have forced the powers-that-be to settle.

Instead the unions relied on boycotts and the National Labor Relations Board. A favorable NLRB ruling in 1997--calling the dispute an unfair labor practice strike and ordering the companies to rehire strikers after their unconditional offer to return to work--was overturned by an appeals court three years later.


It’s not necessary to look to the 1930s for an example of sustained and militant illegal defiance that won. In 1989 the Mine Workers struck Pittston Coal. Thousands of supporters from the East Coast and the Midwest drove to the Virginia hills to the miners’ Camp Solidarity. Civil disobedience blocked scab trucks. The coal operators got injunctions aplenty, and then-UMW President Rich Trumka risked the union’s treasury in the face of $65 million worth of fines. Finally 99 miners and a preacher occupied a coal processing plant and forced management’s hand.

Newspaper workers have done it too. In 1990-91 they struck the New York Daily News, stopped distribution of the paper through persuasion friendly and otherwise, and blocked the Tribune Co. from busting their unions.

This sort of mass mobilization with national backing was considered early on in the strike. In an August 1995 visit to Detroit, Trumka, shortly before his election as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, discussed the idea of a Pittston-style mobilization with Detroit union leaders. He warned that they should not begin unless they meant to go all the way. They chose not to begin--and apparently neither Trumka nor John Sweeney pressed the issue.

The strikers did engage in a whole range of creative actions--for years. While many went on to get other jobs, some dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to the strike. At the outset bands of strikers, sanctioned by the unions, picketed newspaper distribution centers in the middle of the night. Sometimes scab drivers got rough; sometimes the union people got in trouble with the cops.

After a while the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO called these efforts off, apparently fearing liability. The unions sent strikers to leaflet stores that were breaking the advertising boycott. This once-removed activity soon palled.

One group, the Action Coalition of Strikers and Supporters, operated independently of the official leadership. They organized a rush-hour freeway slowdown and were the ones who built the Action Motown national march in 1997. Readers United, a support group initiated by religious activists, organized a series of sidewalk sit-downs at newspaper headquarters in spring 1996. Hundreds were arrested, including a bishop and half the city council.

Later on, the Teamsters International unleashed a dynamite organizer who led strikers and supporters in airport drive-throughs, picketing of bosses’ suburban homes, whistle-blowing sprees downtown. The strikers’ creativity and energy were boundless, and they brought together supporters from other unions, creating a community of activists that didn’t exist before and still continues today. This remarkable band of rank and filers kept the strike alive, but they were never able to convince the majority of members to act independently of their elected leaders.


Questioning of these leaders, some of whom seldom appeared on picket lines or at solidarity events, was actively discouraged. So, at times, was participation in many of the hundreds of events that made up the strike, from fundraising dinners to Readers United’s pickets. Teamster officers, in fact, phonebanked members to tell them not to attend ox roast fundraisers organized by rank and filers from sister unions.

Most of the strikers and their most active supporters were white, in a city 80 percent Black ringed by mostly white suburbs. The newspapers began hiring Black scabs and bragged about their new diversity numbers. Broadening the strike’s activist support base to reflect Detroit was an issue never much talked about. In fact, at one point the Sunday Journal headlined articles about the trial of two white cops convicted for beating a black man to death--and seemed to take the cops’ side.



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In effect, local leaders acted as if a readers’ and advertisers’ boycott and withdrawing workers’ labor would be enough to win the strike--as if Gannett and Knight-Ridder did not have hundreds of profitable properties elsewhere and as if scabs were not readily at hand.

Before the strike, there was next to no preparation. Half the Newspaper Guild--the unions’ most visible members--scabbed within a few weeks. Local leaders’ stated strategy was to wait management out for seven months, the figure they confidently gave as the “usual” length of a newspaper strike.


In five years, officials called only three mass meetings of all strikers.

Even if local leaders had been up to the challenge, putting heat on Gannett and Knight-Ridder would have required support from the top levels of the labor movement. John Sweeney and Rich Trumka were elected on a militant platform soon after the strike began, loaded with moral authority. If they were serious about wanting to change labor’s course, Detroit would have been the place to take a stand. But that would have meant breaking protocol and stepping on some local toes.

Instead, in the first few months after his inauguration, Sweeney busied himself with creating a plethora of commissions and task forces on how to revitalize the labor movement, virtually ignoring the real-life struggle taking place, and faltering, in Detroit. Asked in early 1996 to call a Solidarity Day III in Detroit, he stalled. When he finally replied, in August, he said no--citing too little time to organize a march for Labor Day.

When the national march finally took place, 23 months into the strike, it was only a consolation prize: relatively small, peaceful, and legal. Knight-Ridder and Gannett felt no heat.

When the union suits drew back, they demonstrated to watching corporate strategists that labor was not willing to do what it took to win.

Those old guys who gave John Joslin such a hard time were right, and the stick-to-what-you-know-even-if-you-lose union leaders were wrong. The rank and filers who followed their leaders instead of thinking for themselves were wrong too, although, as militants from P-9 to Staley know, it’s well nigh impossible to fight on two fronts.

To produce victories in tough situations like the Detroit newspapers will take more risks, more trust in the ranks, more ferment from below than most of us have seen.

Labor Notes welcomes letters from strikers and other Detroit survivors.

In Their Own Words...

When the companies start hiring these outside thugs you know you’re in for a long struggle and you have to be prepared for that. While they lost their case in the courts, the overall experience was really a very good one because it got a whole bunch of people to work together as a community and labor. That was a really positive thing that’s going to last for a long time.

- George Corsetti,
Readers United

The newspapers expected to scorch us. They never expected it would take five and a half years. They thought it would take three months. It cost them millions to attempt to bust our unions and they never expected the support from the public that we got, because they don’t give the public credit.

They had all the money in the world. Someone said they have more tires than we have star nails. That’s really true. It’s the worst contract you could ever expect, but it took five and a half years to cram it down our throats.

- Rebecca Cook,
fired Guild member

There are no boundaries when a company is determined to destroy labor unions. That’s the biggest lesson the Council of Newspaper Unions officers learned: the enormous losses Gannett and Knight-Ridder were willing to take in order to bust the unions. Both our readership and advertising boycotts were highly successful. More than 500 advertisers had pulled out of the paper. They subsidized those papers probably to this day, and now they’re publicly admitting that the boycott has devastated them—they’re asking the unions to encourage people to start buying newspapers again.

A more rational business would have said, “This isn’t worth it.” That was a bitter lesson for all of us.

- Lou Mleczko, President,
Newspaper Guild of Detroit

The main lesson is that you can’t win a strike with boycotts, you got to shut the papers down. After six months or so when they saw they weren’t making any progress, they needed to call a general strike in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan even. You can’t beat money, you have to win strikes with people.

- Armand Nevers,
fired DTU/CWA member

I learned that corporate America is willing to spend a billion to smash the workers, that solidarity works really well, that we need to convince our leaders that working with these bastards doesn’t work.

Victory and defeat don’t even apply. I’m not saying we didn’t lose the strike. We lost the strike. But they lost too, stuff they’re never going to get back. As good as it would have been to win, we got a whole new group of active people to go on and fight some more. With all the weaknesses of our support and our timid leadership, the entire blame goes to Gannett and Knight-Ridder.

- Barb Ingalls, GCIU