Face-Off in Detroit: Newspapers, Unions Settle in for What Looks like a Long Strike

Article excerpt

Both sides in the Detroit newspaper strike ratcheted up the pressure as signs grew through the week that the already bitter labor dispute could become a long one, too.

Though Detroit has seen numerous strikes over the years - including an epic nine-month walkout that shut down both papers in 1968 - this one fed speculation both on the picket line and in Wall Street that the Detroit News is not long for this world.

"I believe they wanted this strike," said Jack Keaton, a Teamsters mailer walking the picket line in front of the News' downtown offices. "This is Phase II of the JOA [joint operating agreement], with Phase III being the shutting down of one of the papers. This is something we saw coming two years ago.

One journalism academic - and longtime Gannett watcher - agrees the strike portends the end of Detroit as a two-newspaper city.

I think so, if it's a prolonged strike said John K. Hartman, the Central Michigan University journalism educator and author of the 1992 book The USA Today Way.

I think Gannett has pretty much had its fill of the Detroit JOA. They lost money there for the first three years, they went through three [JOA] CEOs until they found one who has at least made a modest profit. I think [the surviving paper] is most likely to be the Free Press, which has the most circulation and probably the most prestige around the state," said Hartman, whose book argues that Gannett bought the News in 1986 only to get access to automotive advertising for its fledgling USA Today.

Executives at Detroit Newspapers, the joint agency that operates Knight-Ridder's morning Free Press and Gannett's evening News,vigorously deny any intention to fold the News, despite the continuing shrinking of its circulation.

Detroit Newspapers has certainly shown it plans to continue publishing despite the strike. Since the strike began on the night of July 13, the JOA has used non-union labor - and a paramilitary-style private security force - to continue printing a newspaper, despite the walkout of 2,500 workers from six unions.

The company has not missed a day of publication - but since the second day of the strike it has printed a combined paper called the Detroit News and Free Press that has been thin on both advertising and local news. And union pressure has made distribution a continuing problem.

Strikers - who represent the vast number of organized newspaper workers from journalists to Teamster mailers and drivers - claim their own victories, including pledges of advertising boycotts from several high advertisers and a subscription cancellation drive that, at least in its first days, overwhelmed the newspaper's circulation telephone line.

On Monday, two Teamsters locals asked the National Labor Relations Board to declare the walkout a strike over unfair labor practices, which would prevent the newspapers from hiring permanent replacements.

Even as unions were filing that petition, Knight-Ridder and Gannett were sending journalists from newspapers across the country to work in Detroit.

Tim Kelleher, senior vice president of labor relations for Detroit Newspapers, said of the petition, "The unions, particularly the Teamsters, have filed a lot of unfair labor practices, and this one does not seem to be any more basis than the other ones."

By mid-week, no bargaining sessions were scheduled and emotions were running high on the picket line - and inside the tightly secured newspaper facilities.

George Bullard, assistant managing editor for local news at the News, wrote in a column for the combined paper about the verbal abuse picketers have directed against non-union employees.

For their part, some picketing newsroom employees said they have been disturbed by the quality of the management-produced paper - and a front-page column by Free Press publisher Neal Shine, an employee favorite, that suggested the Newspaper Guild had no real beef with the papers. …