Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Scab-O-Rama: Columnist Waxes Nostalgic About Crossing Lines In Detroit

UPDATED 7/28: S.F. Chronicle reporters blink as they approve a "terrible" contract.

Leave it to the Detroit Free Press to employ one feckless columnist after another. First, it's the inimitable fiction-writing Mitch Albom about whom much has been written about here. Now, we turn to Exhibit B, one Susan Ager, who writes today about the bad old days 10 years ago when Detroit newspaper workers walked out in a bruising strike that ultimately crushed the union in a once-proud labor town.

When the temperature hit 90 in Paris last week, I put on a flimsy old linen tank top that I realized I'd also worn exactly 10 years earlier on a Detroit picket line.

OK, so we know she doesn't change her wardrobe that often. Thanks for sharing, Sue, who admits to being clueless about why she was on strike.

My head was full of questions. I'd never been on strike before, and that it happened took me by surprise. For a few days, until I learned the language, I couldn't have told you what it was about.

How about job cuts, wage freezes, a merit-pay system and cuts in health insurance, for starters. This, at a time when the once-struggling papers had recently made a $56 million profit. Yet, all that still doesn't jog Ager's memory about a bitter strike in which the papers hired thousands of scabs to ice out the strikers once and for all (For a view from both sides of the fence, check out this frank and fair analysis of the strike when it ended from Detroit's Metro Times --http://www.metrotimes.com/editorial/story.asp?id=1210).

Some of my coworkers stayed on the picket lines for many months, through the winter and into the next summer. But I could not, and I was among the first 20 or so to go back to work, as most of us from the newsroom eventually did, out of desperation or -- in my case -- disillusionment.

Disillusionment? True, the unions were outflanked and didn't martial enough support to win the P.R. war or any other war, for that matter. There's even evidence they spurned the help of other unions (see this interesting analysis from labornotes.org---http://www.labornotes.org/archives/2001/0201/0201b.html). But the unions faced an all-out assault from management intent on breaking them once and for all.

That Ager, like Albom, blithely crossed the picket line didn't have its intended effect beyond putting another warm body in the newsroom. The strike, in one form or another, went on 5 1/2 years. The unions were bowed, bent and bruised, but the two papers were estimated to have lost as much as $300 million, along with one-third of their circulation.

A decade later, I remember the heat of it all. I am aware that even remembering it in print will reignite both anger and grief.
Mostly I'm astonished that there are finally weeks when I don't think about the strike or my lost friends. .. It didn't heal all wounds. But for most of us, I have to hope, they no longer throb day and night.

Dunno. Sounds like Ager stopped throbbing a long time ago. It could be argued the same thing could be said about the Free Press.

Meanwhile, taking a page from the playbook in Detroit, looks like the San Francisco Chronicle is spoiling for a fight. Here are some of the proposals in a take-it-or-else offer to the Newspaper Guild:

Slashing pay from 1 percent to 24.4 percent for about 400 Guild employees. Journalists and outside sales representatives are excluded from pay cuts but virtually every other employee would see their paychecks shrink.
> Eliminating one week of vacation -- lowering the maximum to four weeks per year.
> Eliminating five days of sick leave -- cutting the current allotment of 10 days, which is common or even low in the newspaper industry, in half.
> Killing the popular program that allows parents of infants and toddlers to work part time until their children are in kindergarten.
> Reducing pension benefits, including freezing the lump sum (severance pay) component.
> Forcing all assigning editors into management positions, where they would lose job protections and overtime pay.
> Eliminating the birthday and anniversary holidays.

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