Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
Labor Day Memory
September 5, 2015
This Labor Day marks the passage of twenty years since striking Detroit News and Free Press workers strode down Woodward Avenue in the Parade. It was the beginning of a long, bitter, and brutal battle. Much of the mainstream media has ignored this anniversary and evaded the lessons learned and questions still before us.
The strike began in July of 1995. Nineteen months later, after boycotts, arrests, campaigns targeting advertisers and readers, the unions made an unconditional offer to return to work. But the corporate powers refused to take back any of the striking workers. Ultimately a 1997 ruling that the newspapers had engaged in unfair labor practices was overturned. In 2000 a federal judge forced the unions to agree to managements terms.
The history of this strike is contested. But almost everyone would agree that it forever changed the relationship between the two daily newspapers and the community. It destroyed careers, changed lives and revealed a level of corporate brutality and police collusion that many thought had been left in the dark past.
I was part of a group called Readers United. That group helped orchestrate boycotts of advertisers, worked with the Metro Times and Michigan Citizen to increase community news, and staged arrests of government leaders, teachers, social workers, newspaper readers, health care professionals, and parents who blocked the entrances to the Detroit News and Free Press. We encouraged the publication of the Detroit Sunday Journal, the paper produced by strikers. Within weeks the journal had a circulation of 300,000, a clear sign of community support.
One of my deepest memories of that time was the first police bus pulling away from in front of the Detroit Free Press building after the arrest of local elected officials. Council President Maryann Mahaffey managed to force her hand cuffed fists out the window in a sign of defiance and solidarity.
A new book by Chris Rhomberg, The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor, captures much of this history. Or, for a shorter analysis, the work of Jane Slaughter, published in Labor Notes in 2001 is an important read.
In a review of Broken Table, John Burns asks the question of what we can learn from failed strikes. He hopes people will conclude this Labor Day thought:
“Collective bargaining rights must be defended, and trade unionists must begin to create new forms of effective strike activity.
But on a deeper level, stories of failed strikes have intrinsic value. Brave people fought against the odds, showed tremendous courage, experimented with new tactics, and in many cases, were transformed as activists and as people. We need to hear their stories. By pushing back, these striking workers revealed what does not work and why.
Labor history is littered with defeats that sowed the seeds of victory for workers. By learning lessons, fighting smarter, and, most important, challenging illegitimate legal restrictions on the right to strike, our ancestors built a powerful labor movement capable of transforming society. It is still possible.”
For me, the tragedy of this strike is embodied in this contrast. Before the strike, the most consistent journalists in the community were Susan Watson and Betty DeRamus. They were supported by Desiree Copper at the Metro Times, Carmen Harlan and Diana Lewis on TV and Nkenge Zola on DET–all African American women who shared a deep commitment to our community. They reported with humanity and vision. Today we have Stephen Henderson. His paper responded to the recent plan by the governor to further erode public education and local democratic control saying it “was not sure what to think.” Such emptiness would not have been possible from any of these women journalists.