Academic journal article Labor Law Journal

The Detroit Newspaper Strike: A Template for Employers on Preparing for and Operating during a Labor Strike

Academic journal article Labor Law Journal

The Detroit Newspaper Strike: A Template for Employers on Preparing for and Operating during a Labor Strike

Article excerpt

The Detroit newspaper strike, the most ballyhooed labor strike of the last half-century, began with swagger on July 13, 1995, when six unions representing over 2,500 employees struck the Detroit Newspaper Agency, The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press (hereinafter sometimes collectively referred as the "employers").1 The strike would officially end with a whimper some 19 months later, on February 14, 1997, when those same unions made unconditional offers to return to work.2 In reality, the strike, dubbed by some as "the strike to end all newspaper strikes"3 was doomed from the moment the unions, without adequate planning and preparation, launched their ill-fated walk out.

The unions' lack of preparedness stands in sharp contrast to the extensive planning and preparation the employers engaged in for at least three years leading up to the strike.4 So extensive were the employers' strike plans that even such details as researching "ways to fill vending machines and get hot meals for round-the-clock workers in case of a walkout" were carefully thought out.5 While the employers incurred some surprises along the way and were required to make some midcourse adjustments to their plans, there's no denying that these companies were arguably the most prepared of any employers in the history of labor/employment relations to take on a strike. In the end, that proved to be the decisive difference between winning and losing the battle.

This article will examine, from an insider's viewpoint,6 the extensive steps taken by management to prepare for union contract negotiations that began in the summer of 1995, and continued until 2000, with some litigation relating to the strike still lingering to this very day. This article will also examine the law concerning many of the key issues management faced during the strike, as well as developments occurring during the strike. It will also serve as a template for any employer who is contemplating whether or not to continue to operate during a labor strike.


A. General strike preparations

Although the Detroit newspaper strike did not begin until July 13, 1995, the roots of the employers' strike plan went back to 1992, when the previous three-year contracts with the unions expired.7 Beginning in early 1992, the employers first developed a strike plan in the event that a successful contract could not be negotiated with the unions.8 Fortunately, agreements were reached with all of the unions, rendering the 1992 strike plan unnecessary.

After the 1992 contracts were settled, the employers went through a formal de-briefing process in which all key personnel were asked to critique the plan and identify its strengths and weaknesses.9 After that, at the invitation of other newspapers around the country that were preparing for contract negotiations, a team of Detroit newspaper executives and managers visited or spoke to newspaper representatives in Akron, Camden, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Jose, and Cleveland, sharing Detroit's comprehensive strike preparations.10 In the process, the Detroit newspapers' representatives benefited from hearing other publications'points of view.

In addition to that learning experience, strikes in two other cities in 1992 and 1994 added to the Detroit newspapers' education. In Pittsburgh in 1992, two daily newspapers in that city were struck, and the newspapers were never able to distribute more than a token number of papers.11 In fact, that strike crippled the Pittsburgh Press so severely that the publication was forced to close its doors not long after the strike ended.12

In the fall of 1994, the unions of the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner went on strike. As in Pittsburgh, the San Francisco newspapers also encountered severe distribution problems.13 A team of Detroit newspapers personnel was on hand during that strike, and got a bird's eye view of the situation and issues as they developed.14

From those two labor stoppages, the Detroit newspapers learned two painful lessons about strikes. …

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