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Who Will Strike Out? : Detroit Newspaper Walkout Has Become a Test of Wills

November 21, 1995|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TAYLOR, Mich. — The call to the union hall at 3 a.m. on a recent Sunday sent 200 strikers and supporters scrambling. Within minutes, they massed in an ugly mood outside a newspaper distribution center in this small Detroit suburb.

With no police there yet, the pickets were confronted by a few guards with video cameras. Insults were exchanged and rocks hurled. The guards retreated and picket signs became clubs used to smash windshields and headlights on cars whose drivers dared to cross the picket line.

"Welcome to Detroit, assholes!" taunted one picket, his face shrouded by a ski mask against the biting wind.

The angry scene was part of a destructive battle that has been played out every weekend since July 13, when 2,500 union workers went on strike against the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News. There is no end in sight.

Indeed, the stakes climbed sharply this week with the unions' publication of their own 300,000-copy Sunday newspaper to compete against the Detroit dailies--just as the all-important holiday shopping and advertising season kicks off.

Detroit Newspapers Inc., the joint operating agency for the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, is bracing for demonstrations Wednesday night at the suburban Detroit plant, site of previous violence, where the traditionally ad-rich Thanksgiving Day editions will be printed. And holiday shoppers on Friday will encounter 5,000 strikers urging boycotts of the papers' retail advertisers.

"We're going to send a message to those retailers that there is a price to pay for still remaining in that strike paper," said Lou Mleczko, president of the Newspaper Guild of Detroit, Local 22.

What began as a disagreement over work rules and job security has degenerated into an often-violent test of wills: The unions say the companies want to bust them; managers say they must hack away at inefficiencies to survive.

And over the course of the unexpectedly long struggle it has taken on broader significance in an industry that is trying to cut costs in the face of rising newsprint prices and competitive pressures. The strike also has posed a worrisome challenge to organized labor on turf it has owned since the 1930s.

The newspapers, scrambling to cut costs in a shrinking industry, have hired more than 1,300 permanent replacements for striking workers--an echo of former President Ronald Reagan's action in the 1981 strike of air traffic controllers that came to symbolize labor's decline.

The strike pits the nation's two largest newspaper publishers--Knight-Ridder Inc. and Gannett Corp.--against some of the nation's biggest trade unions, including the powerful International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Detroit, home of labor legends Walter Reuther and Jimmy Hoffa, is hallowed union ground. A defeat here could have lasting repercussions.

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"If a paper can keep publishing during a strike in a labor-intensive city like Detroit," said John Morton, a media analyst for Lynch, Jones & Ryan, "they can do it anywhere."

The walkout is not about economic issues but rather control of the workplace. The main stumbling block was the two papers' desire to restructure an antiquated distribution system, undermining the Teamsters' district manager jobs and designating 2,800 carriers as employees--directly responsible to the papers--rather than independent contractors. The newspapers also want to automate many circulation jobs and substitute newsroom merit pay for automatic cost-of-living raises.

It is a struggle guaranteed to bare deep fissures in Detroit, where one in four workers belongs to a union. The unions battle for community support with radio and billboard ads, and have enlisted the support of religious and political leaders. The dispute has become a subject of Sunday sermons and an issue in local elections. It has divided friends and families.

Subscribers have posted signs in their front yards: "No Free Press or News wanted here." "Subscriber on strike."

"It really comes down to, 'Which side are you on?' " said Nancy Dunn, a striking Free Press copy editor, who no longer talks to some friends who crossed picket lines.

As the strike enters its fifth month, the newspapers appear to be winning largely because the unions have been unable to stop delivery. After publishing a joint edition for the first two months of the strike, the papers--run under a joint operating agreement that lets them share circulation, advertising and production operations but maintain separate newsrooms--resumed separate publication Sept. 18.

The papers are getting out, sometimes with the help of helicopters, despite weekly confrontations with strikers at printing and distribution centers.

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"For all intents and purposes, the strike has been lost by the union," declared Robert Giles, editor and publisher of the Detroit News, the afternoon paper owned by Gannett.

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