A Dumb, Suicidal Newspaper Strike  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE NEWSPAPER BUSINESS    
From AJR,   April 1997

A Dumb, Suicidal Newspaper Strike   

The unions were a sure bet to lose the battle in Detroit.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     


Last fall I was invited to give a speech before the Detroit chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. After I described the marathon strike against the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News as dumb and suicidal, I was immediately taken to task.

A woman in the audience, presumably a striker, questioned my ethics, since I had ignored the question of right and wrong in my analysis. Her comments perfectly pointed up the dangers inherent in allowing ideology, in this instance union solidarity, to dictate strategy.

The real issues in Detroit were not questions of right or wrong – I suspect that as in most strikes there was plenty of each on both sides – but of smart and dumb. The unions chose dumb.

Now that the unions have offered to go back to work unconditionally, effectively ending the strike that began July 13, 1995, consider the practical consequences of the bitter labor battle:

Overnight, the Detroit newspapers' management achieved staffing reductions and elimination of salary-fattening work rules that would have taken years to win at the bargaining table.

The two newspapers are now reaping the benefits of employing work forces less than 80 percent as large as they were before the strike. The papers became profitable once more in last year's fourth quarter and expect a fully profitable 1997.

A great many of the 2,000 strikers are now out of work, with tragic impact on careers, lives and finances. It is difficult to know precisely how many people are in this group, since some strikers eventually crossed picket lines to go back to work and others found jobs elsewhere. Management has vowed never to displace the 1,300 replacement employees hired during the strike and will offer jobs to those who went on strike only as openings develop.

The Detroit newspaper franchise has been harmed, perhaps permanently, by the unions' fierce campaign to drive away advertisers and persuade subscribers to cancel.

Management says that advertising has climbed back to about 80 percent of pre-strike levels, and the most recent circulation audit shows the two papers at about 70 percent of pre-strike circulation. These percentages have been improving slowly, and if the unions give up their campaigns against the newspapers – by no means a sure thing – they may rise even more sharply.

But it will be difficult for the newspapers to regain all that they have lost, partly because reading habits have been broken and partly because, in the nation's quintessential union town, resentment against the papers could last forever. Market growth could fuel circulation growth but, given Detroit's recent economic history, this might not amount to much.

Although the unions have officially capitulated, ending the strike (and ending strike benefits that had drained the unions' national strike funds), many issues remain to be resolved by the National Labor Relations Board. Local union officials told reporters that ending the strike was merely a ploy to qualify strikers for back pay should the NLRB eventually decide the newspapers had engaged in unfair labor practices. Refusing to take back all the strikers in effect is a lockout, they said. Resolution of the NLRB complaints – the newspapers also have filed complaints – could take years because of federal court appeals.

I was struck at the SPJ meeting by the intensity of feeling. Everyone there seemed convinced that they were involved in an epic struggle closely watched by the newspaper industry and especially by executives at the headquarters of Gannett and Knight-Ridder, owners of the joint-operating agency that publishes the newspapers.

Such emotions are understandable for people whose lives had been turned upside down by the strike. But they also reflect how insular local newspaper people can become if they do not pay sufficient heed to the technological and other changes in their industry that doomed the Detroit strike from the beginning (see The Business of Journalism, September 1996).

Sure the newspaper industry was watching, but it saw the strike more as a curiosity than as something historic. Why would well-paid employees walk out when it was clear the newspapers could publish without them?

As for the executives at Gannett and Knight-Ridder, the Detroit strike ceased to be a major concern at midnight on December 31, 1995, when the books including the bulk of the strike-related losses were closed for the year. From the next day on, every dollar less the newspapers lost compared with the previous year was a dollar added to the bottom line for 1996.

By the end of 1996, each company's stock price had gone up 22 percent. At press time, Gannett's stock had risen another 7 percent and Knight-Ridder's 4 percent. They have the unions in Detroit to thank for much of this.

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