Peace at Last?
A new agreement moves Detroit's long and bitter labor strife
closer to a conclusion.
By Kathryn S. Wenner
AFTER MORE THAN FIVE YEARS, Detroit sees a break in the battle.
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at
the Washington Post.
Members of the city's Newspaper Guild overwhelmingly approved new contracts at the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press last month. But at AJR's press time, an end to the long and bitter dispute still hinged on two Teamsters locals that had yet to agree to vote on a contract. The guild includes newsroom and maintenance employees.
"I think it's significant, in the longest labor dispute in the newspaper industry, over five years, that these unions in Detroit have been successful in obtaining new agreements," says Lou Mleczko, president of the Newspaper Guild's Local 22.
The dispute began with an employee walkout in July 1995. Some employees crossed the picket line, and others returned after the strike legally ended in February 1997. But they've been working without a contract since, and some have not been called back to their former jobs.
Free Press Publisher Heath Meriwether says he's encouraged by the contracts and thinks that "the vote itself can be an important part of the healing process for the Free Press and the community," a labor stronghold that supported a circulation and advertising boycott mounted by the unions.
But he can't do much to rebuild the paper's deeply dented circulation until the Teamsters approve a contract, Meriwether says. The two papers, partners in a joint operating agreement, lost 292,440 in combined daily circulation between 1994 and 2000, based on figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The Free Press, circulation 365,579, is owned by Knight Ridder, and the News, circulation 237,518, by Gannett Co. Detroit News Publisher and Editor Mark Silverman could not be reached.
A spokesman for all unions involved says firm proposals are still being worked out for the two Teamsters locals. A photo-engravers union is without an agreement as well.
Even if the Teamsters reach an agreement, says Free Press reporter Bill McGraw, "the Free Press' reputation as a paper in the community has been severely damaged and will be much harder to rebuild."
Union reporters at both papers say they are happy to have a contract, even though they are disappointed about some key provisions. It allows an open shop, meaning employees do not have to join the union or pay a fee if they don't.
"I feel that a contract was a victory," says News reporter Susan Whitall, who was on the bargaining committee. The guild made concessions, but the contract contains "a lot of extremely important rights and benefits."
But not all employees are enthusiastic about the union. News reporter Mark Puls says he came back to work after three-and-a-half months on strike because he felt the union was blowing things out of proportion. Still, his hopes are the same as those expressed by union members and management: that the contract approval will bring some internal healing to the papers.
Shortly after the 1995 walkout, the unions filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that the company was engaging in unfair labor practices. The NLRB agreed, but last July, a federal appeals court in Washington sided with the newspapers. The decision meant that most striking workers were not eligible for back pay, among other things.
This gave the guild little choice but to get the best contract offer they could and take it to a vote, Mleczko says.
"I am not entirely happy with the provisions," says News reporter Mike Martindale, who's been with the paper since 1973. But, "I was here when we didn't have a contract, and I've seen what a company can do if you don't have protection."