Detroit Strike Ended — “Unconditional Surrender”

by Charles Walker

After five and a half years, the strike by Teamsters (and four other unions) against Detroit’s two major dailies ended — and ended badly.

The strike by 2,500 unionists against the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News cost the papers an estimated $200 million, as circulation dropped by a third. Yet it was the unions that in the end cried uncle. Early on, one of the press bosses declared, “We’re going to hire a whole new work force and go on without unions, or they can surrender unconditionally and salvage what they can.”

Commenting on the settlement, which was announced on December 17, 2000, a union representative indicated that the unions didn’t salvage much. “But it’s better,” he said, “to have a contract than no contract at all.”

The wage improvements at 2% are about half the current official rate of inflation. Moreover, wages have been slashed for some workers. For example, the mailers (Teamsters) who once earned $16 an hour are now paid about $11 an hour. About 185 workers are waiting for openings before they can return to work; and if the companies have their way, 200 more will not be rehired at all.

To add insult to injury, the bosses forced the unions to agree to an open shop, meaning that new employees do not have to join the union as a condition of their employment. In fact, the unions gave up the right even to collect the equivalent of dues from them.

Boycott Hurt Circulation

Some might wonder what juice the unions had left to keep from being permanently kicked out altogether. The answer is that the papers want the unions to help them get back their lost readers. So the unions have agreed to help rebuild the papers’ standing in Detroit, still a relatively strong union town. As a first step, the unions will end their boycott, and have accepted a bonus deal linked to the papers’ regaining lost readers.

At one point, it seemed that the press bosses had underestimated the unions’ willingness to fight to maintain their members’ standard of living and working conditions. At first, when the bosses tried to get their papers out, they were often stopped by massive all-night picket lines, bulked up by auto workers and carpenters, teachers and students. However, when a company-friendly judge issued an injunction against the unions, the unions immediately gave up their mass picketing strategy. Its mostly been downhill ever since.

If ever there was a place where the population could be expected to support militant unionism on the picket line, it’s Detroit. Indeed, thousands of volunteers, in the spirit of the 1930s, turned out to picket and to stop the scab-driven trucks. Sadly, the union leadership dropped the ball, turned the strike into a boycott and demobilized the strikers’ allies, who instinctively had rushed into the streets and to the picket lines.

Hoffa’s Role

When Teamsters President James P. Hoffa ran for office, he seemed to give the impression that if the Hoffa name itself didn’t persuade bosses to see reason, then he would use the smarts he learned on his famed father’s knee. After Junior Hoffa took office in 1999 he spoke of restoring Teamster power, and seemed to promise that the Detroit strikers would benefit by his election. Hoffa sent Jon Rabine, an international vice president, who has been bargaining with Seattle’s newspapers for about thirty years to talk turkey with Detroit’s press lords. Neither Rabine’s much vaunted experience nor Hoffa’s name and Hoffa’s control of Teamsters power got the job done.

In fact, to date, Hoffa has yet to get the better of any bosses — as demonstrated by the union’s sagging attempt to organize Overnite (a major nonunion trucking firm), the humiliating settlement with Budweiser, and the Northwest Airlines agreement that flight attendants rejected several times over. If Hoffa holds on to the union’s top post, after next year’s election, he’ll have to face off against the nation’s freight bosses and United Parcel Service (UPS), the union’s biggest employer. If the recent past is any indication of what Hoffa will achieve, the ranks may reasonably expect that Hoffa will fail to deliver.

If Hoffa and the union’s bureaucratic officialdom don’t (or won’t) bring home the bacon, what can the ranks do? The answer may lie in the Teamsters own history, when in 1934 during the low point of the Great Depression, a rank-and-file force of Minneapolis Teamsters proved mightier than a city’s entire ruling elite though backed by courts, cops, and its newspaper bosses.