AJR  Books
From AJR,   September 1994

The N.Y. Daily News Strike: Bad News for Everyone   

Strike: The Daily News War and the Future of American Labor
By Richard Vigilante
Simon & Schuster

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Strike: The Daily News War and the Future of American Labor
By Richard Vigilante
Simon & Schuster
320 pages; $23

This is the story of a strike no one wanted, under circumstances no one could control, with results no one needed.

It's a parable about miscommunication and mistrust in an industry where labor and management have never gotten along terribly well. Mostly, in Richard Vigilante's view, the New York Daily News strike of 1990 was a spectacularly blown opportunity to develop a new alliance for the post-industrial age.

So it's a depressing story, but an exciting and instructive one as well. Vigilante, a veteran writer and director of a small nonprofit think tank, the Center for Social Thought, tells it with blow-by-blow insider thoroughness, though he seems less successful in conveying the larger picture.

The five-month strike was brutal and costly. After months of fruitless negotiating, it began almost accidentally. A seemingly minor flare-up involving a driver who was literally sitting down on the job escalated into a full-scale walkout. The company played hardball and called in replacement workers. Violence immediately broke out. Positions hardened.

Five months later, the paper's owner, the Chicago Tribune Co., essentially surrendered after violence and intimidation closed off hundreds of the paper's vital newsstand dealers. The company gave British media baron Robert Maxwell $60 million to take the News and its debts.

By then, the strike had cost as much as $200 million, the Daily News had lost a third of its circulation, and the unions stood to lose 870 jobs (more, Vigilante reports, than "under the Tribune Company's most draconian proposal").

Though the evidence is in dispute, Vigilante concludes that nobody really wanted the strike. Put in its most neutral form, the Tribune Co.'s goal was to replace obsolete publishing technology and wasteful work rules with high-tech equipment and new-style team management at a paper that had lost more than $100 million over the previous decade.

To do that, it resolved to outlast the unions on the make-or-break issue of who determined work schedules and who controlled mid-level supervisors. But the company hoped, Vigilante believes, to win through negotiating.

At first the company made some strides, with high-profile publisher James Hoge working together with union leaders. But the goodwill broke down over a classic chicken-and-egg issue: the company was willing to invest tens of millions in a new plant only after gaining union concessions, but the unions, believing the company had reneged on earlier promises, resisted further concessions until after the company put up the money.

When the company turned matters over to the notorious union-busting labor lawyer Robert Ballow, the unions saw it as a sure sign the company wanted a strike. Negotiations became shouting matches, and the dispute rolled toward confrontation.

Vigilante clearly approves of the company's goals to institute modern management techniques. He makes a good case that the unions condoned inefficiency, corruption and "bizarre work rules, lax management and gross overmanning," such as insisting that 12 to 14 people were needed to run presses that the company believed could be run by six or seven.

Yet he also recognizes the Tribune Co.'s anti-union history, the unions' reasonable skepticism of hazy management promises, and the hostile political climate that made labor suspicious and stubborn.

It is when he tries to make all this into a morality play that Vigilante ventures into dicey areas. Modern management, exemplified by the Tribune Co.'s successful Freedom Center plant in Chicago, derives from a "powerful spiritual impulse," he believes, the essence of which is "a moral revival" that creates a "virtuous organization." Vigilante even casts this as a story of "a resurgent Protestant business culture going to war with a decaying Catholic one."

Maybe so, but when he drifts away from the day-to-day chronicling, Vigilante starts to veer into stereotyping and overgeneralizing.

What does seem clear, based on his evidence, is the difficulty of bringing quality management concepts into organizations as complex and old-fashioned as newspapers. In particular, he documents the sad inability of both management and labor to move together in good faith toward long-range goals.

What stands out, after completing this account, is how everyone seemed to play roles from a script. Publisher Hoge worked frantically to move his paper forward until he was asked to "disappear" and turn things over to harder-nosed lawyers; those lawyers adopted an inflexible, letter-of-the-law attitude that discouraged serious negotiating; and the hapless unions, uncertain of their long-run viability, chose a "rope-a-dope" strategy of delay and confusion. Missing, at least as Vigilante tells it, was anyone willing to step out of character, take some risks, and drive toward a solution satisfactory to both sides.

That used to be called leadership, and the industry will certainly need to rediscover it if its antiquated systems have any hope of adapting to the new information age. l

Stepp, an AJR senior editor, teaches at the University of Maryland College of Journalism.