Labor pains revisited
Remembering the Detroit newspaper strike of ’95
Published: October 24, 2012
On top of that, the companies spent "an estimated $40 million on private security forces and paid more than $1 million to suburban municipalities to cover police overtime at their production and distribution sites."
One aspect of the profound change that has taken place in recent decades is the use of a strike as a negotiating tactic.
Writes Rhomberg: "The strike itself has almost disappeared: during the 1970s, an average of 289 major work stoppages involving a thousand or more workers occurred annually in the United States. By the 1990s, that number had declined to about 35 per year, and in 2009 there were no more than five."
In short, he writes, what we've seen is a "renewed corporate offensive against unions since around 1980, the erosion of collective bargaining, and the failure of traditional legal protections for workers."
One of the lessons learned from the Detroit strike is that labor can't depend on the courts. Even if unions do eventually get favorable rulings, the ability of management to stretch things out for years works to the detriment of unions.
Saying "justice delayed is justice denied," Rhomberg told his audience that "if you have to fight it out in the courts, you lose."
Instead, the key to success is creating "small, localized social movements to achieve what you want."
But it's not easy.
One of the most illuminating things that came out of lawsuits associated with the strike has to do with the ability of corporations to buy off law enforcement. As Rhomberg reports, civil rights suits brought by strikers "revealed a pattern of collusion between the newspapers and the Sterling Heights Police Department."
At one point during last week's talk, the discussion turned to the question, "Who won?"
Ingalls, who described seeing her husband Bob, a UAW member, beaten to the ground by cops, talked about the very real feelings of solidarity the strike generated, and the raising of consciousness that resulted.
The way she sees it, the papers suffered losses that they haven't really recovered from. And the unions remain, having retained the right to bargain collectively.
So, in that sense, it was a victory for labor.
Others described the outcome as a "draw."
But as we sat listening to Ingalls talk about the buyouts currently under way at the Free Press, and the skill level and institutional memory being lost as a result, we wondered.
In terms of the quality of daily print journalism in this town, she predicted, "It's going to get worse."
If that's the case, we asked, aren't we all losers?
No one disagreed.
But there's an even bigger picture, one that seems at the heart of The Broken Table, and last week's labor conference as well.
"The newspaper strike represented the exceptional struggle of one community during the decade of the 1990s," Rhomberg writes at the conclusion of his book, "but every generation must decide which rules will govern its collective economic, political and social relationships. We need not dismiss cases like Detroit as mere outliers or historical failures; such moments, when all involved do their worst and best, can teach us something about crucial institutional conflicts and paths of change."
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