Motown ’97


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.