Detroit Strike: Two More Newspapers Go for Broke

Article excerpt

CARRYING a placard outside the Detroit News building here, truck driver Jake J. says his union bosses would rather let two of America's largest, big-city dailies die than kowtow to the "money grubbing" owners.

"You've got two big companies trying to impose their conditions on the little guy because they want to make more money," says the card-carrying member of Teamsters Local 372.

Inside, Bob Giles, editor and publisher of the afternoon paper, responds. "The issue is our need to be able to run our business in an efficient and competitive manner. If we don't, we're out of business anyway."

Now entering its third week, Detroit's first newspaper strike in 15 years is the latest chapter in an increasingly familiar saga of self-preservation for American newspapers: how to streamline costs, modernize operations, and boost profits to stay alive amid growing threats from other news and information outlets.

Twenty-five hundred newspaper employees walked off the job July 13 - mostly in noneditorial positions, from drivers to mailers to printing-press operators. The six unions who represent them say they disagree with management on a wide range of issues, such as merit-pay increases, operating issues, and delivery-route sizes.

But Tim Kelleher, lead negotiator for the Detroit papers, says the issue is simply "control."

"We have to finally end the entrenched featherbedding enjoyed by union workers here, who work three hours of an eight-hour shift before they stop for the day because there is nothing left for them to do," Mr. Kelleher says.

Currently, federal mediators who have been trying to help the negotiations say the two parties are too far apart to even confer in the same room.

"Both sides are attempting to smear the other in the eyes of the public," says Rich Boehne, an E.W. Scripps Company executive whose company closed the Pittsburgh Press after an eight-month standoff in 1993 that involved similar issues. "No one outside the negotiations can really know what is being placed on the table by both sides."

Tempers on both sides are high, and threats of violence and physical abuse are rampant. A night guard was shot in the face with a pellet gun, and advertisers who continue to support the paper have been threatened with boycotts.

In the meantime, the Knight-Ridder-owned Detroit Free Press (morning) and the Gannett-owned Detroit News (afternoon) continue to publish and distribute with the help of employees flown in from other newspapers in their chains. …