Letter from the US: Detroit labour march set

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Letter from the US

Detroit labour march set

Detroit labour march set

By Barry Sheppard

Newspaper workers now in the 22nd month of a strike have won important support in a call by top American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) leaders for a mass march in support of their demands.

In a letter to union presidents, AFL-CIO president John Sweeny, secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka and executive vice-president Linda Chavez called on the labour movement to build the march as part of a two-day "Action! Motown '97" centred on the fight of six newspaper unions against the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News.

The strike was called mainly against attempts by the papers to eliminate jobs.

Both papers' business and production are carried out by Detroit Newspapers Inc. The Free Press is owned by the Knight-Rider conglomerate and the News by the giant Gannet company, which also puts out the national USA Today.

The call by the national AFL-CIO was resisted by its top leaders for some time. The strikers have been clamouring for such a national march for almost a year.

They had hoped it would be called for last September. But the AFL-CIO tops didn't want to place Clinton, and other Democrats running for office, in the embarrassing position of having to take a stand on the strike. And the presidents of the striking unions didn't protest this decision very much.

Angered by this lack of resolve, militants in Detroit set up a new rank-and-file group, the Action Coalition of Strikers and Supporters (ACOSS). A December 9 meeting was organised by ACOSS, at which more than 900 strikers put their names to an appeal urging the AFL-CIO to call a national march.

This compelled the local union leaders and the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO to publicly urge Sweeny to call for a march. Supporters around the country succeeded in getting the central labour councils in other cities to endorse this appeal. Damon Hartley, leader of the rank-and-file movement, sent the appeal to 1700 local unions nationwide.

The clamour for action grew tremendously. Thousands of messages were sent to the AFL-CIO national office demanding action. When the AFL-CIO General Council met in February, a delegation of strikers descended on the meeting. Under this pressure, the council voted to call the march.

From the beginning, the strikers conducted a militant battle, organising mass pickets to disrupt distribution of the two papers and blocking scabs from entering the plants a number of times. The media conglomerates, using anti-labour laws and judges, eventually blocked these actions through arrests and scab herding by the cops.

The strikers also began to put out their own newspaper, the Detroit Sunday Journal, which was not only a better newspaper than the scab Free Press or News, but which drew advertisers away from them and discouraged readers from buying the struck dailies. Circulation of the scab papers dropped from 900,000 to 600,000.

Gannet and Knight-Rider poured an estimated $250 million into the battle, however, and by February of this year, the striking unions made an offer to go back to work "unconditionally", as long as the papers took back all strikers. This the papers refused to do, keeping their scab work force and turning the battle into a lockout by the company.

The tenacious strikers have not been defeated. The picketing continues, and so does publication of the strikers' newspaper. They are stepping up efforts to get advertisers, who are sensitive to growing pro-striker sentiment, not to advertise in the scab papers. Getting a national march called is a victory that can only give them a shot in the arm.

The unions are also charging the Free Press and News with an unfair labour practice in refusing to hire the striking workers in spite of their unconditional offer to return. The National Labor Relations Board will rule on the issue. If the NLRB rules in the unions' favour, the companies will be liable for back pay and benefits such as health care for each day they deny the workers their old jobs.

The NLRB is an arm of the capitalist state, of course, but its credibility rests on disguising this fact, so it sometimes has to rule in favour of the workers in a dispute. The proposed march will put pressure on the NLRB to do so in this case.

How well the AFL-CIO will build the march remains to be seen. The same rank-and-file forces that mobilised to win the official call for the action nevertheless have a chance to build the June 20-21 action into a success.

Postscript

Two months ago, I reported on a struggle by Latina workers in the San Francisco Bay Area to organise their company, Rubber Stampede. Owner Sam Katzen vowed he would never let a union inside the plant. But a few days after a demonstration on International Women's Day at the plant, he capitulated and signed a contract that gives these workers full union recognition, seniority rights, substantial wage increases and health care benefits.

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