Review: Chris Rhomberg, The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor (2012)

For an academic work, this is a quite good, fact-packed, but flawed, book about a militant strike in the United States, the Detroit newspaper strike of 1995–2000, which took place during a generally bleak decade for class struggle. Clowns such as Bill Clinton’s then–Labor Secretary Robert Reich openly wondered whether unions still had a role in the much touted, “entrepreneurial,” (and now happily forgotten) “new economy” of the bubble. One must, of course, be wary of a book plugged by Kate Bronfenbrenner, who runs Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and for whom Rhomberg’s book shows why “worker-community solidarity and filing legal challenges are no longer enough to win strikes.” That is indeed what Rhomberg’ s book shows, but ultimately not for reasons Bronfenbrenner, or perhaps Rhomberg himself, is about to discuss in a book pitched to a respectable audience of labor academics, labor lawyers and trade unionists. Another flashing yellow light is an endorsement by labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, who in 1995 lent his voice to the bubbly enthusiasm among “progressive academics” for newly-elected and ultimately hapless AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.

Rhomberg, as he shows in this book and in an earlier work on Oakland, California entitled No There There,[1] is anything but naive. His historical portrait of post-1945 Detroit, as background to the strike, is an almost textbook case of the race-class dynamic in America. Detroit, coming out of the mass CIO strikes of the 1930s and 1940s, was the American union town par excellence; in 1945, 60 percent of the population belonged to a union or was related to a union member. Yet, at the very height of the 1943 wildcat strikes in auto, against the no-strike pledge, Detroit was also torn apart by race riots in which 34 people died—17 of them blacks killed by police. The post-war era saw little respite, with white opposition to integrated housing an ongoing reality.[2] White flight to the suburbs began in the 1950s and, as early as 1958, there were 25 new suburban auto plants; that flight accelerated after the 1967 riots in which 43 people were killed. By 1990, 2.9 million people, 95 percent white, lived in a suburban ring, surrounding a hollowed-out city of less than one million, majority black people and shuttered factories. (Contemporary propaganda blaming “overpaid auto workers” for the current devastation of Detroit is naturally silent on this dynamic.).

Militant late 1960s actions by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers had forced auto companies to hire black foremen and also forced the United Auto Workers (UAW) to hire black staff.[3] In 1973, Detroit elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young, who remained in office for 20 years. The decline, however, was relentless: Detroit in 1950 had 1.8 million people and 300,000 manufacturing jobs; by 2000, 62,000 such jobs remained within the city. Following the 1967 riots, a much-trumpeted attempt to remake the dying downtown area, where unrented commercial space abounded, was a failure; it featured the ill-fated “Renaissance Center,” which lost $130 million in its first five years. By 1982, 250,000 auto workers had lost their jobs; 42 auto-related companies closed between 1978 and 1981 alone. Membership in the UAW fell by nearly half, from 1.5 million in the late 1970s to 800,000 by the late 1990s.

(A more up-to-date, undoubtedly ill-fated, renewal attempt is underway today, focused on the renovating powers of the so-called “creative classes”—yuppies—a renovation which of course offers nothing to the remaining long-term, overwhelmingly black residents except higher rents and further marginalization.)

The 1990s had also seen a small “rebirth” in the pathetic (and not only in Detroit) “post-industrial” turn to casinos and sports arenas.As background to the dynamics of the strike, Rhomberg provides interesting material on the history of the newspaper in the United States, tracing out the demise of the small town paper as well as of the multi-paper urban press; as early as 1960, 90 percent of newspapers had no local competitor. Total US daily circulation peaked in 1974 at 63 million and fell to 55.8 million by 2000. Detroit by the 1990s still had two papers, the News and the Free Press . In contrast to many of the “suburbs in search of a city” that had grown up in the Sun Belt in the postwar era, Detroit’s papers were rooted in gritty urban realities and by the very nature of Detroit provided labor coverage long after most big urban dailies had closed down their labor beats and were covering strikes primarily in terms of inconvenience to the “consumer.” By the mid-1990s, the News and the Free Press were the ninth and tenth largest newspapers in the United States, and still had strong ties in what remained of the local community. But they were hardly immune to the larger trends; in the 1970s and 1980s, technology eliminated more than half the jobs, wages fell by 25 percent, and finally the News and Free Press were forced to merge.

The 1990s were not as strike-free as they might have seemed in the hangover of the 1989–91 recession and the deceptive glitz of the Clinton years. Coal miners in Pittston, Virginia, had fought off an attempt to shred their UMW contract in 1989–90; the New York Daily News was also struck in 1990, as was Colt Firearms in Hartford, Connecticut; under duress, beleaguered unions were making more serious attempts at community outreach, as in SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles. In spite of all the downsizing, there were still 600,000 union members in southeastern Michigan in 1995, creating a broad base of sympathy, rooted in the history of the region, which would have been available to strikers in few other American cities. In 1997, around the time that the militant actions of the Detroit newspaper strikers had been rerouted into years of ultimately futile (and predictable) NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) and court proceedings, the Teamsters struck UPS nationwide for two weeks, one of the few winning strikes of significance against a backdrop of general rout. The UPS strikers won wage increases and the conversion of 10,000 part timers to full time, while holding the line on pensions, with very strong and visible support from the “public,” i.e., a good part of the working class which was reeling from nearly two decades of rollback.

One of the more arresting parts of Rhomberg’s book is his detailed description of how the management of the News and Free Press prepared for the 1995 strike for two full years in advance, far more carefully than the unions, spending $2 million in the process. Rhomberg frames his overall analysis in terms of a clash between a declining set of labor-management relations left over from the New Deal and the new open season on workers that took off in the 1980s, where management simply walked away from the “broken table.” Such a framing, while obviously of some validity, overlooks a long history, from the mid-1950s at the latest, of wildcat strikes and rank-and-file revolts,[4] quite outside any postwar “accord.” But let that go for the moment. The fusion of the Gannett ( News ) and Knight-Ridder ( Free Press ) managements into the Detroit Newspaper Association (DNA) had brought on hardball tactics of a kind for which the multiple unions under contract with the two papers were ill prepared.[5] The DNA carefully studied the two-week strike of the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner, involving 2600 workers in 1994. They enlisted Huffmaster, Inc., a private strike security firm. They cultivated ties with the police department of suburban Sterling Heights, where a new printing plant was located. (While there was a still more modern plant in Detroit itself, management felt that their strikebreaking activities would be poorly received in Detroit proper, and that the plant would be harder to defend.) Their goals were a much greater use of merit pay in the newsroom, elimination of overtime in the already downsized pressroom, replacing full-time with part-time staff in the mailroom (organized by the Teamsters), and further restructuring of the circulation department, whose work force had already been reduced by 80 percent since the previous contract. Even though the papers had turned a profit of $55 million the previous year, management was out to impose a “far more wrenching change” on the various unions involved. Plans for security guards, quasi-military equipment and blueprints for the Sterling Heights Police Department (SHPD) were worked out down to the smallest detail, such as providing hot meals for scabs on the job. The SHPD contacted police forces in the San Francisco Bay Area to learn more about the Chronicle-Examiner strike. The police were informed by DNA management that “a strike was likely, that it would be violent, and that the SHPD would need to develop anti-riot capacity.” Police trained in the use of riot gear outside Sterling Heights City Hall. In contrast to previous contract negotiations, sensing that new printing technology put them even more on the defensive, the unions did show unity against a management strategy to pick them off one by one. But as in other US strikes of the 1980s and 1990s, the Detroit newspaper unions, organized in the Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions (MCNU) were still trapped in the mindset of the superannuated postwar “accord,” such as it had been. Headed by chief negotiator John Jaske, the DNA stunned the unions with its opening offer, which amounted to a demand for almost total surrender. On April 30, 1995, contracts covering 2,500 employees expired. The DNA was partially successful in breaking the front of the several unions involved, and set a June 30 deadline for settling the contracts. As things moved inexorably toward a strike, hundreds of potential scabs (my word; Rhomberg’s terminology is more polite) “were being housed in hotels and motels across southeastern Michigan.” Prior to the strike deadline, the DNA offered most of the unions 10–11 percent wage increases over the three years of the contracts, but with so many clauses undermining the old relationships on the job that, as one member put it, “when it’s all over with, we’re not going to have enough membership to survive.”

On July 13, the unions struck. Given the DNA’s superior bargaining position and two years’ preparation, “for the newspapers, the striking employees were now perhaps little more than a problem of waste disposal, a hazard to be controlled.”

The unions organized in the MCNU did everything they were “supposed to do,” according to the long-superseded script of post-World War II “labor relations.”They got considerable material support from other unions in the region, especially the UAW; they organized a boycott of the two papers; subscriptions were cancelled, most newsstands stopped carrying both the News and the Free Press and circulation plummeted. Many businesses pulled their advertising. Many local politicians and religious leaders implored the DNA to come to its senses and restore the happy family of the status quo ante. There was picketing throughout the region, breaking down old professional and craft divisions among the strikers and broader parts of what Rhomberg problematically calls “civil society,” in a bow to post-Marxist academic jargon. (One presumes that calls for solidarity strikes in other sectors, which was never attempted, is not part of the vocabulary of “civil society.”) The AFL-CIO got into the act, and even then-President Bill Clinton “ordered his executive staff members to decline interviews” with the struck papers. Despite the excessive heat and storms of a Midwest summer, the unions managed to establish 24-hour pickets at far-flung sites. Most strikers, unfortunately, ran through savings fairly quickly and within a few months, the already-low union strike benefits were exhausted; strikers began seeking and sometimes finding other jobs for the duration.

One key factor in management strategy, which had already proved decisive in otherstrikes of the new era, was the 1938 Mackay decision by the United States Supreme Court allowing struck employers to use “replacement workers” (i.e., scabs) who could become permanent employees after the settlement, unless the NLRB ruled that “unfair labor practices” had provoked the strike. Mackay had rarely been invoked in the three decades of the postwar “accord” but was increasingly dusted off during long strikes, as in the “three strikes” of 1993–95 in Decatur, Illinois.[6] Even militant post-1980 strikes, (in contrast to pre-New Deal “good old union tactics”) that stop short of physically preventing scabs from working, have been and continue to be defeated as long as workers, contained within the legalistic union framework, continue to play by the old rules. To break with those rules, as the Detroit strikers on occasion did, would mean breaking with a New Deal legal structure that, among other things, bans strikes (i.e., wildcats) during the life of a contract, and also means breaking with the union apparatus that enforces rules drawn up and approved by the class enemy. Immediately, the News and the Free Press had 500 scabs at work, including many flown in from other cities from elsewhere in the Gannett and Knight-Ritter newspaper chains. Some scabs received a $750 weekly bonus and slept and were fed on site; others were housed in dormitories and bussed in. Guards escorted the distribution trucks. Scab carriers were given cars, cell phones and beepers; the DNA “rented six hundred cars, occupied one thousand hotel rooms, and put nine thousand cellular phones into use.”

The workers and their allies struck back. “Vandals,” according to Rhomberg, damaged two thousand newspaper racks per week. All in all, however, the DNA “never missed a day of delivery,” however thinned down the papers were. Picketing at the Sterling Heights plant immediately led to violent confrontations with police and security guards, as the latter periodically opened gates for trucks to enter and exit. Strikers followed these trucks, and security guards followed these strikers, ramming cars and forcing them off the road. Thugs from the Huffmaster security services “verbally and physically taunted” strikers to the point of irritating the Sterling Heights police; Huffmeister thugs went to strikers’ homes to harass them, enough so that the DNA had to terminate them in early August. Large Saturday night pickets at the printing plant, intended to stop delivery of the Sunday edition, were attacked by police, with arrests and serious injuries. According to one estimate, the DNA was spending $600,000 a day in the early weeks to defeat the strike. The Knight-Ridder owners of the Free Press had had a more laid-back management style than the Gannett owners of the News ; in 1994, the Free Press had even criticized the defeat in Congress of a bill forbidding the use of “replacement workers.” By early August, 1995, however, Free Press management issued an ultimatum, threatening to use just such scabs, and by late August 40 percent of newsroom employees had crossed the picket lines and returned to work. The Free Press also criticized the unity of the unions which “yoked” reporters and other “professional” employees to solidarity with, God forbid, the Teamsters, and invoked such “class” distinctions in personal phone calls to strikers, with some (but by no means complete) success in getting people to cross the picket lines. By the end of August, the Free Press as well was hiring one new scab a day.

The ante was upped as both papers began calling the scabs “permanent replacement workers.” Newly-hired Vance security personnel increasingly replaced the weary Sterling Heights police (some of whom were friends and relatives of the strikers) at the plant gates, fully provided with riot helmets and bullet-proof vests. On the Labor Day weekend, a nearby rally of three thousand joined four hundred pickets at the plant gate, ultimately countered by reinforcements from twenty suburban police departments. In the early hours of September 3, a full-blown battle ensued as the strikers and their supporters rained bricks, bottles and picket signs on trucks attempting to leave the plant. The DNA countered with a convoy of semi-tractortrailer trucks attempting to ram another gate. Only the following morning, when the crowd had dwindled, did trucks manage to leave the plant. On Labor Day itself, Monday September 4, “big labor” brought in its heavy artillery, including then–AFL-CIO president Tom Donahue and his soon-to-be successor John Sweeney, then president of SEIU. Other luminaries were left Democratic Congressman John Conyers and the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. (Such spectacles, however well intended some of the participants may be, are usually a symptom that a struggle is losing momentum.) These luminaries led a march of 5,000 people. This peaceful mobilization of the left wing of the establishment did not prevent a battle involving three hundred pickets at the Sterling Heights plant that night, when they were attacked by police using batons and pepper spray, to which the pickets responded with sticks, rocks and ultimately five-inch steel rods found nearby. One striker, Ben Solomon, was “gassed, beaten, arrested and detained” and later hit with multiple charges, along with fifteen others. (Many years later, in 2000, after the defeat, Solomon won $2.5 million for punitive damages.)

The following weekend, two thousand pickets kept the plant shut for ten hours, after which the DNA brought in helicopters, managing to take out only one-fourth of the Sunday edition. At 4 AM, a caravan of tractor trailers exited the plant, some at considerable speed; there were, however, only a few minor injuries to pickets. Three days later, a judge issued an injunction restricting pickets to ten at the main plant entrance. This anticipated move nonetheless back-footed the union leaders, who claimed it was not clear how many people were willing to risk an escalation of possible fines and jail sentences.[7] The decision to halt mass picketing as a result of the injunction provoked some serious opposition from rank-and-file militants; Rhomberg does not mention this,[8] nor does he mention that both the recent Pittston strike of 1989–90 and a more recent Teamsters strike in 1994 had defied injunctions and won. Whatever its limitations and its immersion in exactly the New Deal “accord” touted by Rhomberg, the CIO in the 1930s was itself built by defying court injunctions.[9] The unions instead fell back on their “corporate campaign” strategy of circulation and advertising boycotts, and pickets went to distribution centers around the city. The DNA ultimately lost $90 million in the first six months of the strike, but they had shown a willingness to escalate by “any means necessary,” an escalation the unions and their rank-and-file were, for better or for worse, unwilling and/or unable to match.

Rhomberg regrets the demise of the New Deal order, which “served to steer the actors toward a peaceful, negotiated settlement.” Again, he forgets a bit quickly the “dark underside” of that order, as in the showcase union, the UAW, where management granted wages increases and benefits while taking full day-to-day control of the shop floor, where banned wildcat strikes increasingly became the main practical alternative to a slow, ineffective grievance procedure and where the shop steward increasingly became a cop enforcing the contract against his or her own base. This dichotomy had erupted into plain sight as early as 1955 when Walter Reuther, then head of the UAW, came back from “Big Three” negotiations with what he thought was a great contract for wages and benefits, only to be stunned by wildcat strikes across the Midwest in response. This same downsized UAW had also not lifted a finger during the mass layoffs in the auto industry of the 1980s and 1990s, part of the general employer offensive of which the Detroit newspaper strike was one example. Neither does Rhomberg say much about the large sectors of the work force which had been specifically omitted from “peaceful, negotiated settlements,” starting with farm labor; for an author otherwise attentive to a race and class problematic, he does not mention other ways in which New Deal labor law had been written to remain virtually a dead letter in the Jim Crow South in order to keep the “Dixiecrats” within the New Deal coalition. The increased use of “permanent replacements” after 1980 under “Mackay” accelerated; in more than 300 strikes, “walkouts last an average of 217 days when permanent replacements were used”; 46 percent of “contract negotiations involving major violence” involved the use of such scabs. All this, of course, undermined workers’ legal right to strike, as enshrined in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Permanent replacement workers—scabs—increase management’s incentive to go to the mat in order to get rid of the previous work force; one Knight-Ridder spokesman said in October 1995 that the cost of the strike “would be recouped in long-term savings from operating with a smaller and more efficient workforce.” (A Detroit regional NLRB did later rule that DNA management had engaged in “unfair labor practices” at the outset of the strike, implying that all strikers must be rehired and scabs let go; that decision was, of course, overturned on appeal.)

Leaders of the unions at the international level in October 1995 “began informally to raise the possibility of the Detroit locals making an unconditional offer to return to work”[10]; local MCNU leaders rejected the move, along with many rank-and-filers, who rightly saw it as unconditional surrender. Instead, the MCNU offered a “conditional” return to work with a “good faith” agreement to negotiate job cuts and come up with $15 million in savings in labor costs for the DNA. Management rejected this proposal peremptorily, saying “it would not fire the replacement workers.” The DNA by October 1995 was intent on eliminating the striking work force, which remained on the picket lines; it also specified that it would take back no worker guilty of “misconduct” during the strike. Strains had developed between the DNA and Sterling Heights officials because of the increasing expense borne by the city for the “super bowl of labor disputes.” The DNA responded by immediately writing checks to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars for police overtime, riot gear and related costs, saying it was a “good corporate citizen.” When the payments became known, the strikers were further enraged, flashing signs saying “Bought and Paid For” at the Sterling Heights police. Ultimately, however, more than two hundred strikers were fired for misconduct during the strike; some of those cases were reversed “but only after years of litigation, and many fired workers never got their jobs back.” Firings occurred for alleged “punching and spitting on picket line crossers, vandalizing property, throwing rocks and star nails, and threatening persons with physical harm.” Many cases were dismissed because of “fabricated evidence, collusion by company witnesses” and “reports filed months after the fact.” Of these cases, 121 were only overturned in 1999.Violence intensified in the fall of 1995 at sites around the Detroit area. One striker had his skull fractured by a security guard; another was run over by a scab van, but survived. No one was charged in either case. Militant and sometimes violent demonstrations of several hundred strikers kept some distribution centers closed on Sunday mornings but such centers were only a fraction of the total, and the DNA stood fast. Individual violence increased on both sides. Then, in mid-November, just before Thanksgiving and “its anticipated heavy advertising volume,” the DNA charged the unions with conspiracy under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act, with possible huge fines and expenses.[11] DNA management was pushing for unconditional surrender. One striker said “I never thought in Detroit I would see the level of raw power demonstrated against ordinary working people….”

Finally, with the approach of Christmas, the Detroit mayor, a US senator for Michigan and a Roman Catholic cardinal pleaded for a resumption of negotiations. In a four-hour meeting in the mayor’s office, management insisted on the reduction of 650 positions, on its right to retain 1,400 replacement workers, and rejected amnesty for strikers accused of misconduct. Management further urged retirement for 289 workers who were eligible. Retirement or relocation was management’s main suggestion to the strikers. Nothing came of the meeting. (Dennis Archer, the mayor, had earlier defended the deployment of hundreds of Detroit cops to assure distribution of the Sunday papers, saying it was necessary to create a “good business climate” to attract investment to Detroit.)[12] Having been checkmated on the picket lines by the fierce management offensive described above, the unions in early 1996 turned to what Rhomberg calls “new areas in civil society and the state.” However interesting some of these attempts may have been, they were clearly a fallback line of defense in what was shaping up as a near total defeat. A strikers’ newspaper, the Detroit Sunday Journal, was founded in late 1995. A coalition called “Readers United” (RU) talked, thank you, of “the responsibilities of the newspapers and their civic function in the community.” (To be fair, RU did carry out some militant actions later on.) The newspapers responded with their own attempt to frame the strike. The unions turned to the state to determine “whether (the strike) was an ‘economic’ one or an ‘unfair labor practice’ strike.” Rhomberg, with some justification but with some serious dose of apparent naïveté, once again posed his own overarching analysis of “the ascendant anti-union regime” and “a declining New Deal order.” That order was indeed breaking down, and “the institutions intended to reinforce negotiation gave way to litigation instead.” Does Rhomberg seriously think that the capitalist state (our term) was ever, when the chips were down, a neutral arbiter of class struggle?One can hardly quibble that outreach to other workers (as opposed to the “public”) in a long strike is a necessity in getting struggle beyond the “shop floor” and the plant gate. This was exactly what was missing—an attempt to broaden the strike to other parts of the Detroit and regional working class—from the strike strategy, and given the union leadership’s turf mentality, probably inevitably. Television played its mystifying role, showing slick presentations by management and counter-posing to them “the first person who would talk to them on the picket line,” as often as not a foul-mouthed Teamster. Top labor officials such as John Sweeney and Newspaper Guild president Laura Foley bankrolled the Detroit Sunday Journal, which by summer 1996 was self-supporting and ran 165,000 copies per week, ultimately becoming the “largest weekly and third-largest Sunday paper in the state.” This was followed by a “corporate campaign” of the kind which “Mr. Strikeout Artist” Ray Rogers had attempted in a series of losing strikes in the 1980s (such as the previously mentioned, ill-fated P-9 meatpacking strike in Minnesota). This involved an advertising and circulation boycott of management’s other newspapers, such as Gannett’s USA Today. In April 1996 strikers and supporters intervened—politely—in Knight-Ridder’s annual board meeting. Shortly thereafter, 500 strikers and supporters, including Teamster president Ron Carey, intervened at the Gannett board of directors meeting, with similarly little result. Corporate campaigners spread out through the country raising support. Back in Detroit, renewed pressure was brought to bear on advertisers and with “ambulatory picketing,” whereby pickets followed newspaper carriers on their routes. A Teamster organizer who had played a role in the 1989 Pittston coal strike, a relative (defensive) victory, was brought in.[13] Several hundred strikers were trained in non-violent direct action tactics, and in the spring and summer of 1996 carried out militant demonstrations at the homes of DNA executives. With these and other tactics, in Rhomberg’s view, “the unions pushed their activity into the community and outward toward a larger public sphere…they challenged the distinctions between the private economy and the public good, the boundaries between commercial property and civic space.” Religious leaders became involved, deploring “the use of violence, both personal and institutional, by anyone involved on either side.” The previously mentioned Readers United and other groups staged a series of non-violent actions, involving arrest by high-profile religious and union figures such as a UAW regional director and retired UAW president Doug Fraser. Several hundred people were arrested in such actions. The DNA, for its part, predictably reacted to such protests with indifference and contempt, though it did put out reams of what one source called “company agitprop masquerading as news,” against what was deemed the pro-strike bias of local television and other media. The papers retailed the now-familiar mantra about the unions as “privileged” and “featherbedders,” a ploy that resonated with some after decades in which hundreds of thousands of other jobs had been eliminated. As has been seen in many later attacks on public employees, decades of gutting private sector industrial unions have made it easy for capital to portray the last unions standing as “privileged”; this does not absolve the workers in such unions from reaching out on a class-wide basis to the larger downsized and casualized strata to raise general wages and benefits and to counter the inexorable “race to the bottom.”

The DNA also played the race card in overwhelmingly black Detroit, which enraged black strikers but was not without its effects in the city at large. Rhomberg provides figures showing that of the 2,025 “replacement workers” hired during the strike, 487 were hired as part-time or casual employees, among whom blacks outnumbered whites 3:1 and of whom one-third were terminated by June 1996. A great majority of those blacks hired were enlisted as janitors and mail handlers, while only 8 percent of new reporters were black. But such figures were largely unknown at the time and the papers, which had only 18 percent total blacks on the pre-strike payroll, had some success in portraying the strike as “white” and “suburban” to the “large, dependent and low-wage labor pool” left over from massive industrial downsizing, especially given Detroit’s race and class dynamic since at least the 1940s, as previously presented by Rhomberg. The fact that the papers, and not the unions, were doing the pre-strike hiring was lost from view.

Starting in 1996, the struggle was, fatally, increasingly fought out at the NLRB and in the courts. In July of that year, an NLRB decision in Washington compelled the unions to sign an agreement promising to cease violence, coercion and threats against scabs. Some advertisers used the NLRB to force unions to stop “picketing, blocking entrances, intimidating customers, and engaging in an unlawful secondary boycott.” A “non-violent guerrilla war” was fought with police over the right to continue leafleting and residential picketing on public property. The UAW was added to the DNA’s RICO lawsuit. The unions had to disavow some non-violent direct actions by groups such as Readers United. The different fronts in the struggle, for Rhomberg, “signaled the extent to which contemporary labor disputes exceeded their traditional boundaries, spilling over into multiple areas of civil society and the state.” Detroit mayor Dennis Archer again proposed to mediate the strike, but the newspaper “categorically rejected” the proposal. More ritual ensued on Labor Day, 1996, when the new AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and secretary-treasurer Rich Trumka (former head of the United Mine Workers) came to town to be arrested for civil disobedience along with other high-profile union, religious and political leaders; everything in this gambit was choreographed in advance with the Detroit police.

Nonetheless, concludes Rhomberg, “for a year and a half, the strikers had fought and in many ways won the battle of Detroit, But the newspapers’ response raised doubts as to whether the struggle could be decided at the urban metropolitan level.” International leaders of the six unions were increasingly pushing for a “settlement.” Responding to this pressure, the unions in the MCNU in February 1997 decided to make an unconditional offer to return to work[14] and to gamble on having the strike declared the result of unfair labor practices, which would require reinstatement of strikers and “back pay liabilities of $250,000 per day.” The papers insisted it was an economic strike and took back only certain strikers. Some of those taken back were generally downgraded and took major pay cuts while scabs took over their original jobs. Returning printers had to attend a week-long “orientation” that consisted of a large dose of “verbal abuse, gloating and sarcastic treatment.” They were later put in an isolation room with nothing to do, and “had to ask permission to go to the bathroom or get coffee.” They remained in what was dubbed the “decomposing room “ until February 1998, costing the company $1 million, before they were finally put back to work in the composing room. The focus turned to the NLRB. The unions were planning a huge march, “Action! Motown 1997,” beginning on June 20, with supporters coming from as far away as San Francisco. This was further pitched, says Rhomberg, as “part of the renewal of the United States labor movement under AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.”[15] Emotions were further ramped up on June 19, the day before the weekend event was to begin, when a local NLRB judge ruled that the newspapers had indeed been guilty of unfair labor practices, implying almost total victory to the strikers: reinstatement with full back pay and all scabs laid off. Euphoria took hold. The weekend included a teach-in at Wayne State, benefit concerts for locked-out workers, an interfaith religious service and nonviolent protests (one at the home of a DNA CEO in upscale Grosse Pointe Farms); all of this was followed by a march of perhaps 100,000 people and a mass rally. Trade unionists came from 45 states and from twelve countries. It was in fact the largest rally in Detroit since the 1947 UAW demonstration against the Taft-Hartley Act, and was unfortunately destined to be no more successful. Sweeney spoke of “dignity and respect,” and Trumka called on the newspapers to be accountable to a “democratic public.” For Rhomberg, furthermore, the NLRB ruling “illustrated the power of the state to fix the meaning of events.” Indeed.With almost 20 years hindsight, and knowing what ultimately happened, it is hard not to be cynical. The culminating weekend event, Action! Motown 1997, impressive as it may have been, had the smell of respectability about it, what French militants call “la manif de l’enterrement,” i.e., the funeral demo. The institutions of official society—“civil society” in Rhomberg’s idiom—had held together, and justice seemed to be at hand, won ultimately not in the streets or at the plant gate, but through the NLRB. And even that eventually proved to be an illusion. Despite the euphoria, the newspapers were not beaten, and were preparing an appeal of the NLRB decision. Various contract complexities created a “shell game” that lawyers on both sides would fight out in a legal labyrinth. One might say that the unions and the papers had battled each other to a standstill “on the ground,” and henceforth everything would be in the hands of judges and lawyers. Where was the spirit of the old IWW, for which lawyers were “shysters” and barred from membership? Rhomberg is quite right that the institutions of the New Deal were confronting a new drive against workers, but was not the problem precisely those institutions’ ongoing ability to channel militant struggle onto the terrain where raw power—class power—was no longer decisive?

The legal labyrinth cannot be described here. Amendment 10(j) to the National Labor Relations Act under Taft Hartley seemed to promise expedited enforcement of the unions’ apparent victory at the local NLRB, thereby avoiding processes that could, and ultimately did, take months or years. The newspapers brought in new legal heavy hitters, including a lawyer who had authored a Wharton Business School manual entitled Operating During Strikes . Five weeks after Action! Motown 1997, the lawyers for the two sides confronted each other at an August 1 hearing. The key issue was the full reinstatement of the strikers and dismissal of the “replacement workers.” Two weeks later, after further shell games, the judge issued a decision saying that an “unfair labor practices” ruling would have to await completion of the full appeal process. This decision “tilted the balance of power toward those actors with greater resources and staying power,” namely the newspapers. Litigation would in fact continue for three more years. The DNA CEO had said “the companies would drag out the appeals for so long that the strikers would eventually get other jobs, retire, or die,” which is more or less exactly what happened. Only one-third of the strikers returned after the final settlement at the end of 2000; up to 20 died during the five years of the strike and the appeals. Protest actions, boycotts and publication of the strikers’ Sunday Journal continued through 1997 and 1998, by a group of rank-and-filers, but it was an uphill battle. James R. Hoffa, son of the late Jimmy Hoffa, was elected president of the Teamsters in December 1998, and promptly fired a Teamster activist who had helped keep the movement alive. The Detroit Sunday Journal ceased publication in November 1999, after four years’ publication. The strikers’ main remaining leverage was the huge back pay settlement, if the unfair labor practices ruling held through the final appeal. The end came in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals in May 2000, presided over by three judges appointed by Ronald Reagan. The court’s July 7 decision completely reversed the unfair labor practice ruling. In late 2000, the various unions signed contracts with open shop clauses, hefty wage reductions, and merit pay. Lawsuits were dropped, including the newspapers’ RICO charges. James P. Hoffa ended the circulation and advertising boycotts. The Detroit newspaper strike was over.

Rhomberg concludes his book with a balance sheet of the strike and attempts to generalize some of its lessons, above all in the post-1980 assault on the right to strike as supposedly codified in the National Labor Relations Act. He points to some of the specific factors in the length and depth of the strike, such as Detroit’s character as a “union town.” He reiterates his thesis about the “deinstitutionalization” of unions in the new era, and goes on to say that “bringing civil society back in illustrates how the meaning of strike action has changed in the post-accord era” (though apparently not enough to win anything). In this era, he says, the strike has become a “more basic struggle…to reconstitute the spaces governing labor relations and workers’ rights.” He points out, as indicated previously, that the newspapers benefited from the long-term racial divide in Detroit, and that despite support from “civil rights and liberal leaders…many ordinary black Detroiters felt distant from both sides and did not see the struggle as their own,” given the “disproportionately white, relative to the central-city population” work force. He contrasts it with the victorious UPS strike of August 1997 (which took place just as the Detroit newspaper strike had made its turn to the NLRB and the courts), and the factors that made it possible for the Teamsters to force UPS to make 10,000 part-time jobs into full time and to rescind its threat to pull out of the pension plan. He argues that “widening the scope of collective action” (as in the greater involvement of “civil society”) “can also enlarge the spaces for public engagement and civic mediation between management and unions.” He argues that Gannett’s “scorched earth” policy not only led to $130 million in expenses but questions whether such a stance “benefited the workplace, the community or even the shareholders in the long run.” After the final defeat of the strike in the courts, Detroit newspaper circulation was down 32 percent from 1995

And, by 2011, was down by half a million readers. This is to be seen in an overall crisis of the newspaper industry, as witnessed by the fall in Gannett’s stock for $91 per share in 2004 to $1.85 in the first quarter of 2009. “The past few decades,” Rhomberg writes, “have seen a profound reduction in the social accountability of private enterprise,” under the offensive of “unfettered market power.” Karl Marx wrote long ago ( Communist Manifesto ) that, win or lose, the real gain of struggles such as the Detroit newspaper strike was the “ever-growing unification of the working class.” In reality, the strike described by Rhomberg joined the long list of post-1980 defeats, beginning with PATCO, by way of the Greyhound strike (1983), the Phelps-Dodge copper strike (1984), the P-9 meatpackers’ strike (1985–86), the Jay, Maine pulp and paper workers’ strike (1987–88), and the “three strikes” in Decatur Illinois (Caterpillar, Bridgestone-Firestone, and Staley) of 1993–95. The period, however, was not entirely bleak. In addition to the above-mentioned Pittston coal miners’ strike of 1989–90 and the Teamster strike at UPS in 1997, other workers fought and won against the general rollback. A group of Latino cannery workers in 1985 in Watsonville, California, rejected a sweetheart contract full of givebacks, threw out the leadership of their Teamster local, and in 1987 finally won a contract restoring much of what management had tried to take away. Non-academic employees at Yale University struck nine times between 1968 and 2003, mostly successfully, and in the latter year won an 8-year contract with 5.8 percent wage increases per year. 750 Latino workers struck the food giant ConAgra in King City, California for two years and prevailed in 2001.

The post-1980 period has certainly been characterized by more defeats than victories, but a recomposition of the working class in the United States is in fits and starts remaking the class terrain. A new breakthrough will probably not be centered on the remaining auto or steel industries, as with the CIO in the 1930s, but will, in all likelihood, feature the Latino workforce, greatly expanded by immigration, militant nurses who have distinguished themselves at the likes of the California health care giant Kaiser, or the truckers in the west coast ports, who are increasingly organized and militant, or perhaps even the sped-up and fed-up workers at Amazon and Wal-mart.[16]

If and when such a breakthrough occurs, it will be essential to recall the wisdom of Marx’s advice regarding the growing unification of the working class—WIN OR LOSE. It is clear that such unification will seldom happen automatically; instead, militants must be prepared to advance the efficacy of strategies and tactics explicitly aligned with such a goal. More than anything else on offer, increased working class unity, as exemplified by the independent collective actions of workers across workplaces and communities (and not by ritualized performances orchestrated by union leaderships), might shift the balance of forces.Rhomberg cannot of course be faulted for not offering such a perspective on the years after the Detroit newspaper strike. Looking back, and taking account of the experiences of all the major defeats that preceded it, it is difficult to see how theDetroit newspaper workers could have won in the period 1995–2000 when they were forced to strike. One can fault Rhomberg, however, for paying little or no attention to the rank-and-file dissidents of the newspaper unions who did attempt to oppose the “corporate campaign” strategy that increasingly imposed itself after the September 1995 injunction against mass picketing at the Sterling Hills printing plant. There was in fact at least a militant minority that, contrary to the “unions” which Rhomberg discusses as an uncritical, undifferentiated whole, was prepared to take the risks of defying the injunction. The strike may well have been defeated anyway, but the injunction was clearly the moment at which it embarked on the road to more or less certain defeat. Raw class power, and not corporate campaigns, NLRB rulings and court decisions, not mass demonstrations led by the John Sweeneys and Rich Trumkas (not to mention scripted “arrests” of such notables) is, in the first and last instance, all the working class has.Rhomberg does not seem aware of the extent to which the New Deal “accord” of the three decades after 1945 shackled the American working class, in ways to which we have alluded. Even militant unions of the rank-and-file have to deal with 500-page contracts requiring teams of lawyers; eviscerated grievance procedures; Taft-Hartley restrictions on wildcat strikes, sympathy strikes and boycotts; and the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 giving the United States Department of Labor direct oversight of internal union affairs.The next upsurge of workers in the United States will look more like the classic IWW of the pre–New Deal period than like the CIO, which ultimately put such strictures in place.

  1. [1]Chris Rhomberg, No There There: Race, Class and Political Community in Oakland (University of California Press, 2004). This book shows, against Gertrude Stein’s remark used in the title, that in fact a great deal happened in Oakland, from mass KKK rallies in the 1920s to the general strike of 1946 to the rise of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s.
  2. [2]See Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, 1996).
  3. [3]James A. Geschwender, Class, Race and Worker Insurgency: The League of Revolutionary Black Workers (Cambridge UP, 1977).
  4. [4]See Stan Weir, “The Rank-and-File Revolt,” in George Lipsitz, ed., Singlejack Solidarity, 2000.
  5. [5]Gannett in particular owned many other newspapers around the country, most of them non-union, and had an eye on Wall Street’s evaluation of its profit margins. It represented the more hardball force in management, which the Knight-Ridder management of the Free Press did not oppose.
  6. [6]See Stephen Franklin, Three Strikes (New York, 2001).
  7. [7]They asked strikers and supporters as an alternative to drive around the plant and snarl traffic, which resulted mainly in lots of traffic tickets. (See Labor Notes, October 1995, p. 9.) Other union leaders argued against mass picketing at the plant with an eye to the Sterling Heights elections on November 7, in hopes of re-electing the majority on the city council which had forced the resignation of the city manager in charge of earlier mass police repression. (I bid .)
  8. [8]One somewhat exasperating aspect of Rhomberg’s book is his use of the term “unions” with absolutely no critical attention to dissidence within them, In fact, a “Unity for Victory Caucus” had formed precisely to pressure union leaders to return to Sterling Heights (ibid). ACOSS (Action Coalition of Strikers and Supporters) was another independent pressure group pushing for national action.
  9. [9]One Teamster said later, in spring 1997: “[F]or much of the strike, (our energy) was bottled up by the old-style tactics of the presidents of the six striking unions. They seemed to feel we could win the strike by walking in circles outside the plant gates…in an era of replacement workers (this attrition strategy) no longer works. We made a huge error in the strike’s early months by not defying the injunction that prohibited mass picketing…We had crippled the papers’ Sunday distribution…when we let the courts open the gates, we took away our main weapon…” Labor Notes, April 1997, p. 9. No statement of this kind is quoted by Rhomberg.
  10. [10]This echoed, for example, the more intense pressure brought to bear on Local P-9 of the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) meatpackers in Austin, Minnesota, in 1985–86, the only local to reject the shredding of the union contract, and which then struck for 18 months, with broad outside support, before going down to defeat.
  11. [11]The RICO law was ostensibly created to combat organized crime, but it seems to have been used more against unions. The DNA lawsuits were only settled out of court in 2000.
  12. [12]Labor Notes, November 1995, p. 5, not quoted by Rhomberg.
  13. [13]The 1989–90 strike was set off by an attempt of the Pittston Coal Company to halt health care and pension benefits to miners, their families and retirees, an attempt which was defeated by miner militancy at the pits and a solidarity campaign by the United Mine Workers that brought tens of thousands of working-class supporters to southwest Virginia. Despite Rhomberg’s occasional references to the non-violent character of the Pittston strike, there was plenty of low-key violence brought to bear in guerrilla actions by miners, often at night and primarily against company property.
  14. [14]Once again, Rhomberg omits a key “fact”: the New York Times reported, in early 1997, on the occasion of Clinton’s second inauguration, that Teamster president Ron Carey, CWA (Communication Workers of America) president Morton Bahr, and other top union leaders had decided to order the Detroit strikers back to work with no membership vote. Eric Chester wrote in the Industrial Worker (newspaper of the IWW) that “Last summer [1996 —LG] union leaders began secretly discussing a plan to end the strike. This fall, as Carey sought re-election in a hotly-contested campaign, he neither explained how he would win the Detroit strike nor did he reveal the ongoing discussion to end it. Once the election was over, and the votes counted, Carey joined two other international presidents in unilaterally ending the strike with an unconditional offer to return to work. This decision was not only made without consulting the rank-and-file, but over its adamant objection.” Reprinted in Impact, v. 5 no. 3, June 1997.
  15. [15]One laid-off worker from the defeated Staley strike in Decatur, Illinois, asked the appropriate question: “Will the weekend be more than a symbolic display of unity?” Labor Notes, June 1997, p. 7. Unfortunately, given the high-profile labor principals involved in the mobilization, from Sweeney on down, that is exactly what it was.
  16. [16]On the latter, see the concise book on the computerized and surveillanced work place by Simon Head, Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans (2014).


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Robert Limas,

    Rick Torres, (Teamster) headed a militant group (Unity Victory Caucus) to force the striking unions to fight much harder and this group was instrumental in making the mass protests happen. they also set in motion the other worker groups form. the UVC feared that the mass march would just turn into a feel good day with no lasting effect which is exactly what happen.

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