The Broken Table: Tale of A Newspaper Strike That Didn’t End Happily (Like Newsies)

The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor   By Chris Rhomberg (Russell Sage Foundation, 2012, 387 pp).

Review by Steve Early

Lately the New York Times has been chronicling the further contraction of the newspaper trade and related job insecurity among print journalists. In a June 4 report, entitled “The Undoing of the Daily,” Times readers learned that the much respected Times-Picayune in New Orleans is not alone in trying to stay afloat by publishing less than once a day. Six other newspapers, in the United States and Canada, have just announced plans to reduce their print schedule and rely on web editions the rest of the time. “Newspaper executives argue that printing and delivering newspapers only on certain days will sharply cut costs while at least preserving some of the paper advertising….”

As the Times notes, “the decision to reduce print papers is usually accompanied by cuts on the newsroom side, as well.” The quality of daily coverage, already eroded due to widespread newsroom downsizing, will further deteriorate for reasons the NYT spells out. “Staff members at The Times-Picayune expect that about one-third of the roughly 140-person newsroom will be cut.” Reporters “have been told that their priorities will shift to writing for the web.” According to one past editor: “They want them to produce more blog posts a day and not worry about putting things together in a more thoughtful package. The Times-Picayune has a sterling tradition of enterprising journalism. That tradition is being thrown under the bus.”

Also part of this unhappy trend are the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, two papers now owned by the Detroit Media Partnership. Since 2010, the News has “printed Monday through Saturday but delivers papers only on Thursday and Friday (with a special section delivered with The Free Press on Sundays).” In the mid-1990s, close coordination between the same two papers—then owned by the Gannett media chain and Knight Ridder, Inc. respectively—laid the groundwork for labor’s biggest media industry defeat in the last several decades. When Detroit newspaper management succeeded in throwing 2,500 employees “under the bus”—by replacing them during a strike—it not only sacrificed the quality of local journalism; it dealt a grievous organizational blow to my own union, the Newspaper Guild/CWA, one of six labor organizations involved in that 583 day ordeal (and years of legal skirmishing thereafter).

An Extreme Case?

In The Broken Table, Fordham University sociology professor Chris Rhomberg provides valuable historical context for this pivotal mid-1990s walkout. The bulk of his book describes the obstacles that strikers faced, how they tried to overcome them, and the consequences of their defeat, locally and nationally. Rhomberg’s in-depth study of the Detroit newspaper strike should be required reading for anyone attempting a newspaper shutdown in the future—or staging a work-stoppage, of any size, in any other venue where the employer has deep pockets, lots of other revenue-producing properties, and the same management-friendly, private-sector labor relations machinery on its side.

By virtue of our steadily declining rate of major job actions, the strike against the Detroit News and Free Press was, as the author notes, “an extreme case.” Some might even view it as an outlier, harking back to an earlier era of no-holds-barred industrial conflict in Detroit. The walkout was “larger than 97 percent—and longer than 99 percent—of all private-sector strikes from 1984 to 2002.” It also involved multiple bargaining units aligning their contract expiration dates and acting simultaneously against a common employer, the Detroit Newspaper Agency. The product of a controversial Justice Department–approved joint-operating agreement, this corporate entity allowed Knight Ridder and Gannett to merge their production, circulation, advertising, accounting, and marketing operations in the city, while maintaining their separate newspaper brands.

Elsewhere in the same industry, a corresponding display of coordination and unity within labor has frequently been thwarted by craft union divisions. In Detroit, the Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions (MCNU) that successfully welded the strikers together covered “white-collar professionals, blue-collar laborers, and skilled crafts-persons”—a relatively rare occupational mix on U.S. picket lines, now and in the past.

Siege Warfare in the Midwest

Yet the Detroit strike remained much a product of recent labor relations trends, well-described by the author, that have become even more pronounced in the last decade of concession bargaining and declining strike activity in the private sector. The Detroit strike settled into the mode of siege warfare familiar to those brave manufacturing workers who tried to resist contract concessions on other Midwestern battlefields in the 1980s and ’90s. As the union-backed alternative newspaper spawned by the strike explained to readers of its inaugural issue, the conflict was never really “about money or even about the number of workers to be bought out or laid off.”

According to the Detroit Sunday Journal, management was demanding or had already implemented “policies that would virtually wipe unions off the playing field by denying representation to hundreds of employees or denying unions the ability to negotiate wages and other substantive issues.” As Detroit Guild attorney Duane Ice told Rhomberg:

“After decades of bargaining nobody could recall any instance when these employers or any other newspapers in Detroit, had bargained to impasse and…basically declared an end to collective bargaining. It meant the unions had no role in the outcome. Basically, an employer could go through the motions, declare impasse, and say, “Well, here are the terms and conditions. We’re done.”

No less than Detroit strikers in the mid-1990s, government employees in Wisconsin realized, last year, where such an employer stance leads. So they acted accordingly, taking to the streets and occupying the state capitol, when their unions were similarly menaced, unexpectedly, by GOP Governor Scott Walker, after fifty years of public-sector contract negotiations in the Badger state. Equivalent bad-faith bargaining (and union-busting intent) triggered a two-week strike by 45,000 Verizon workers not long afterward.

In the talks that have dragged on since that August 2011 walkout, Verizon has continued to seek pay, benefit, and work rule concessions that would roll back many decades of union progress. A management declaration of impasse, whether legal or not, remains a possibility, at which point telephone workers in the Northeast could face the same choice as Detroit newspaper workers seventeen years ago: to accept “posted conditions” or escalate their resistance to those takeaways, on the job, in the community, or back on the picket line.

In Detroit, the path taken to resist labor cost reductions and workplace restructuring was a work stoppage. But it “never fully succeeded in halting the production and distribution of the newspapers,” Rhomberg concludes. Tacitly acknowledging their inability to stop production, union leaders “relied instead on circulation and advertising boycotts and on their legal case” at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Whatever disruption and extra costs they had to endure in Detroit, Gannett and Knight Ridder were both secure in the knowledge that revenue generated by their many other newspapers (both unionized and non-union) would continue to flow their way.

Profiles in Rank-and-File Courage

Rhomberg begins his impressive case study with chapters describing the new structure of newspaper industry ownership and its adverse effects on labor relations within media giants like Gannett, the changing socioeconomic terrain of Detroit as a “union town,” and the “daily miracle” of how a newspaper is produced—a process much changed since the heyday of national unions involved in the strike.

Fortunately, The Broken Table is not just about the larger forces reshaping newspaper workers lives, on the job and in the community. The book also includes memorable sketches of—and well deserved tributes to—strike activists like Michigan Journalism Hall of Famer Susan Watson, a Free Press features writer fired for participating in civil disobedience at the News building on Labor Day weekend in 1996; Barb Ingalls, an auto worker’s wife, who “had never been very involved in her own union before the strike,” but then became a leader in community-labor outreach around the country (work she continues today for anti-war and labor-religion coalitions in Detroit); and Teamster organizer Mike Zielinksi, who enlisted fifty locked-out or fired union members in a Workers Justice Committee that functioned as a “flying squad that could be mobilized on short notice for any kind of action.” (In 1999, Zielinksi was fired himself when, according to Rhomberg, newly elected Teamster president James R. Hoffa decided “to clean house of supporters of his predecessor, Ron Carey, and bring the Detroit struggle to an end.”)

And, finally, there is mailroom worker Ben Solomon, who we meet at the beginning and end of the book. Bloodied but not bowed, he won a rare $2.5 million court judgment against the Detroit newspapers and their municipal government allies for conspiring to deprive him and other strikers of their constitutional rights. During a heavy-handed crackdown on mass picketing at a printing plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan, Solomon was pepper-sprayed, clubbed, then maced again and jailed without treatment, in a shocking display of the police brutality experienced, to a lesser degree, by many other strikers.

Rhomberg’s modern-day tale of worker solidarity and personal transformation is no less dramatic or colorful than the storyline of the musical Newsies. Mixing fiction with a few facts about an actual strike a century ago, Newsies has become a hugely popular NYC stage production. It pits Manhattan newsboys against Joseph Pulitzer, a publishing magnate who unilaterally cuts their pay by raising the wholesale cost of their papers. In the course of their work stoppage, the strikers face beatings and arrests by the cops, suffer divisions within their own ranks due to leadership wavering, but succeed in launching a strike paper and gaining the support of their counterparts elsewhere. That labor unity, plus the friendly intervention of Governor Theodore Roosevelt, leads to a favorable settlement with Pulitzer. The strikers reclaim their now more fairly compensated jobs—a Hollywood ending for sure, albeit it on Broadway (and lifted from a twenty-year-old Disney movie by the same name).

An adaptation of The Broken Table, however, is not likely to be seen anytime soon, on stage or screen. Rhomberg’s narrative is more complex and the denouement of the Detroit strike nothing to sing or dance about.

Let Down by the Law

In real-life newspaper strikes, politicians don’t come to your rescue, although many public officials in Michigan were initially persuaded not to grant interviews to newsroom scabs. In February 1997, after nineteen months on the line, the Detroit unions made unconditional offers to return to work. But the News and Free Pressoffered to “take back only a fraction of the striking workers, as new vacancies allowed,” because they wouldn’t send any of their hired scabs packing. Four months later, an administrative law judge (ALJ) from the NLRB upheld the unions’ claim that the walkout was an unfair labor practice strike. “The judge ordered the companies to reinstate striking workers, displacing, if necessary, the replacement workers and making any strikers not reinstated eligible for back pay.” Two days after that encouraging decision, the AFL-CIO hosted a belated demonstration of national union solidarity with Detroit newspaper employees. More than 60,000 union members marched, rallied, and cheered the latest legal developments.

Unfortunately, the NLRB case appeal procedures are a monument to “justice delayed, justice denied.” The two newspapers refused to comply with the ALJ’s decision and the Labor Board failed to get a federal judge to issue “an interim injunction requiring that all strikers be returned immediately to their jobs” while litigation continued. A year later, in the summer of 1998, the Board in Washington, D.C. unanimously upheld the ALJ’s ruling, setting the stage for a further company appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals. In the meantime, more than 400 former strikers remained locked out or fired (including five of the six local union presidents involved).

$100 million in back pay was riding on the appellate court’s decision. On July 7, 2000, hopes for back pay and reinstatement were dashed when the prior NLRB rulings were overturned. Rhomberg describes what happened next:

“The newspapers refused to take those employees back, and further legal appeals went on for several more years. Finally, most of the individual strike-related civil rights suits were  dismissed or settled out of court.Deprived of their legal leverage, the unions were forced to accept contracts on management’s terms. The last of the six unions settled in December,  2000, and, more than five years after it began, the Detroit newspaper strike was over….The agreements offered no amnesty provisions for fired strikers, including prominent writers and  columnists who had participated in non-violent civil disobedience.”

In one other not legally insignificant footnote to the strike, President George W. Bush named a new chairman to the NLRB in 2002. He chose Robert Battista, the Michigan attorney who served as lead counsel for the News and Free Press in their ultimately successful defense against bad-faith bargaining charges.

As Rhomberg notes, the Detroit newspapers did pay a price for “their scorched earth policy toward the strikers in a community that placed a high value on unionism.” He estimates their direct strike-related losses to be $130 million, because a third of all subscribers walked away too. “Circulation fell at eight times the rate for the industry as a whole between 1995 and 1999, and dozens of veteran journalists left the papers and the city, taking with them years of knowledge and public memory.” In 2005, after nearly seven decades in Detroit, Knight Ridder sold the Free Press to Gannett. The latter then abandoned Detroit too, after unloading both papers on a national suburban newspaper chain called MediaNews Group, Inc. By 2011, MNG had 500,000 fewer readers than the News and Free Press did when the previous owners tamed the unions in 1995.

Some members of the inevitable strike diaspora—union activists who refused or were unable to return to work—“went on to pursue their version of justice in various ways,” Rhomberg reports. Among them are Guild members, Teamsters, printers, and others who remain active to this very day as union newspaper editors or writers, labor organizers, or solidarity campaigners elsewhere.

In 1999, the Sunday Journal—launched as a forty-eight-page weekly tabloid for Detroit readers boycotting the two struck papers—ceased publication. In its first year of operation, the Journal reached peak circulation of 300,000, unprecedented success for a labor-backed strike paper. But as former strikers were called back to the News orFree Press or left town for journalism jobs in other places, the Journal’s coverage shrunk, its circulation declined, union financing was curtailed, and the paper died.

The Journal wasn’t alone in not living to see the paltry contract settlements finally reached in late 2000, under duress and after labor’s disheartening legal defeat. At the better-late-than-never AFL-CIO rally in June 1997, MCNU leader Al Derey brandished a list of more than a dozen strikers—printers, press operators, reporters, and others—who had died from various causes during the first two years of the walkout. To rousing cheers, Derey declared that “not one of them crossed the line!” But “for those and others like them,” Rhomberg sadly notes, “their rights were truly scattered to the winds.”

Steve Early worked as a union organizer and strike coordinator for the Communications Workers of America for twenty-seven years. He has been free-lance contributor to daily newspapers since 1965 and currently belongs to the Pacific Media Workers Guild, TNG/CWA Local 39521 in San Francisco. He is the author, most recently, of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, from Haymarket Books. This review first appeared on the Dissent website’

Photo by Erich Ferdinand, 2009, via Flickr creative commons

4 Responses

  1. […] Speakers: Joseph McCartin, author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America; Ray Rogers,founder of the Corporate Campaign, and veteran of the Hormel; Staley; International Paper, and Con Edison/Local 1-2, UWUA 1982 strike campaigns; Chris Rhomberg, author of The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor. […]

  2. […] Reviewed by Steve Early, The Broken Table: Tale of A Newspaper Strike That Didn’t End Happily (Like Newsies) […]

  3. […] The Broken Table: Tale of A Newspaper Strike That Didn’t End Happily (Like Newsies) […]

  4. […] The Broken Table: Tale of A Newspaper Strike That Didn’t End Happily (Like Newsies) […]

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