Principles and Picket Lines

A Detroit Free Press columnist comes to terms with a newspaper strike

IF someone had told me I would spend my summer trying to persuade people, particularly black people, not to read the newspaper I work for, I wouldn't have believed it. After all, reading has defined me. As a little girl growing up on what we called the ''colored'' side of the tracks in a small town on the fringes of Detroit, reading provided a temporary relief from the bitter reality of racism. But now, nine weeks into a strike by six unions - including mine - against Detroit's two daily newspapers, I find myself doing the unthinkable. I am trying to stop the production, distribution, and consumption of both the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News, two of the largest and finest papers in the country. In my head, I know there's good reason for my actions, for my refusal to continue to write a three-times-a-week local affairs column for the Free Press. This is a strike. Contract negotiations broke down in mid-July. The Detroit Newspaper Agency, which represents both papers, wants to cut jobs, change the way papers are distributed, and replace across-the-board raises with merit pay. The unions object, of course. Six years ago, union members sacrificed hundreds of jobs to help the papers survive. Now that the company is stable again - the papers earned more than $50 million in profits last year - the workers want to share the good times, just as we shared the bad. When the sides could not find common ground, 2,500 employees, from reporters to truck drivers, took to the streets while our bosses hired replacement workers to fill our jobs. A few weeks ago, the federal government charged management with unfair labor practices, but the strike continues. So I do the only thing I can. I picket the place and the shadow of the product I have loved and defended for years. What a turnabout this is. I have always believed that newspapers mean as much to a community's survival as clean air and the right to vote. When we journalists are at our best, we are the eyes, the conscience, and sometimes the heart of a community. We dig out the truth; we expose those who would corrupt government; we give a voice to the helpless and the forgotten. As a friend used to say, ''We raise a little consciousness, and we raise a little hell.'' That's why papers are so much more than processed wood pulp and ink. There's an immediacy to them, an intimacy that you can't find on a computer or television news show. You can sip tea with the paper in the morning or lounge in the tub with it at the end of the day. You can hurl it across the room if you get upset with an article, and you can pick it up later to chuckle through the funnies. Readers come to think of the paper and the folks who write it as members of the family - sometimes loved and sometimes loathed. I cannot count the number of times someone has said to me, ''We've never really met, but I feel like I know you.'' Still, knowing all that, I continue my protest. On Sunday mornings, I stand on a street corner near my home and beg passersby not to buy the paper from the corner vendor. Young folks often punch the air with their fists as a sign of support. Older readers, who have as much ink in their veins as I have in mine, ignore me as they head purposefully for the vendor. Many of these proud, gray-haired African-American men and women remember the battles they fought to learn to read. They're not about to give up that privilege now. I don't know which is the more moving sight - youngsters eager to join a fight for fairness or seniors refusing to give up reading the paper. The other days of the week, I stand in front of the Free Press building and shout, ''No Scab Paper'' at dozens of my co-workers who have crossed the picket line. Some avert their eyes. Others enter with chiseled faces. A few try to explain the circumstances that made them cross the picket line. As I watch them, I am torn between sadness and anger. I ache for those who surrendered their beliefs for a paycheck. At the same time, I want to shake them silly for having the nerve to write articles about the struggle for justice when they have turned their backs on their own struggle. More than anything, I wish this wretched strike would end. I worry the newsroom will be permanently hurt by the bitterness between those who crossed the line and those who didn't. But as much as I want my old job back, I could never cross that picket line because it would cost me my honor to do so. And, if a lifetime of reading has taught me anything, it is that some things are too precious to be bought - or sold.

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