Last week marked the 10-year anniversary of the Detroit newspaper strike, a fact that went largely unmentioned in both papers (just this one column). I’m not surprised, really; I think it’s something everyone involved would like to forget.
The short version: When the combined unions of the Detroit Free Press and News struck the papers in July 1995, the end result was total disaster and a pyrrhic win for management. Which is to say, the paper continued to publish, a lot of good people lost their jobs, the unions’ backs were broken and the papers lost hundreds of thousands of subscribers. For good.
We were living in Fort Wayne then, but it reached that far. Our paper shared a parent company with the Free Press, and when Freep management decided to put the paper out with replacement workers, they called on their sister papers for help. The executive editor I was hired by routinely refused to pass along these requests from corporate HQ, but the one who came after him had a history of union-busting and was happy to put out the call. As I remember, two people took him up on it,.
Both said they were doing it to “save union jobs,” because if the paper didn’t stay healthy during the strike there wouldn’t be jobs to go back to. One had a girlfriend who worked for the Freep, and his intention was to give his salary to her, to keep the wolf from her door, which seemed at least a somewhat heroic motive.
It was a well-compensated gig. You got your salary from your home paper, plus whatever union scale was for your level of experience at the striking paper, plus room and board. If you wanted to put a quick couple grand in your pocket, it was one way to do it. But the stories coming back from Detroit made it sound like no amount of money would be enough. The pickets were boisterous from the beginning, and as the strike wore on, an air of desperation set in. Plus I think some people were using the opportunity to say things that you could never say in an office; I’m thinking of an exchange I heard about thirdhand — yes, I know what a thirdhand report is worth — of one woman shrieking into the face of a manager coming to work: “I HATE YOU! EVERYBODY HATES YOU! YOUR HUSBAND HATES YOU!”
It would have seemed ridiculous, these white-collar, college-educated people carrying on like this, yuppies who already made pretty good money and didn’t have to worry about losing a finger in a punch press. But this is Detroit; we name freeways after labor leaders here. Many strikers were the sons and daughters of Teamsters and auto workers, people who owed their college educations to the good salaries their parents made as union members. There were signs on lawns all over southeast Michigan: “No scab papers at this address.” These weren’t employees; these were readers. Even if they weren’t screaming in their bosses’ faces, there was a great deal more at stake than just one company and its workforce.
And I think everyone must have known that. One of my writing-group members went through this and submitted his personal recollection for a critique. He was non-union and his wife was a striker, and there were stories of tears and shouting and a birthday cake being thrown into the trash in fury, of riding in the company van to work while police held the pickets back, and stony stares and security guards who stuck video cameras in your face. The van driver casually calls the pickets assholes and the passenger says that’s my wife out there. I can’t imagine.
But the papers continued to roll off the presses, and the company began hiring permanent replacements, and little by little people started coming back to work. A few years ago I took a writing workshop in Detroit, and went out for a drink with one of the Free Press people in the same class. She said she came back when her house was on the verge of foreclosure, and that there were still people who didn’t speak to one another. “There are grades of morality, I guess,” she said. It depended on whether you came back in the first wave or the seventh, if you came back because your kid was sick and you needed your medical benefits, or if you were just tired of sitting at home for a cause you knew was lost.
It sounded awful. I really wish the papers had offered something, on the anniversary, that captured that.
It’s funny: When we arrived in Detroit, and I started doing our budget, I noticed that we are paying a fraction, less than a third, of what we paid for health care in Fort Wayne. I guess that’s the unions’ doing, and I’m grateful for it. And I remember back in Fort Wayne, at one of those annual benefits meetings where we’re told just how much more we’ll be paying next year and how much less we’ll be getting for it, asking if the people at union KR papers would be making the equivalent of a car payment for their portion of their health benefits every month. “I’m not sure what they pay, exactly,” the HR person leading the meeting said. “But yes, you may well be subsidizing them.” Divide and conquer, always the management weapon.
Those two people I mentioned, from Fort Wayne, who crossed the line? I think both were offered permanent jobs. One accepted, the other didn’t. The one who didn’t said the one who did was a fucking scab.