Vying for Last Word In Detroit Paper Strike

Walkout ends, but pressed workers seek legal recourse

Newspapers strive to convey a message that is hard and clear. So perhaps it's no surprise that when Detroit Newspapers Inc. informed reporter Allan Lengel of his dismissal, they did so not just once but four times.

Mr. Lengel's stack of dismissal notices during a 19-month strike is fitting testimony to the acrimony between employees and managers at Detroit Newspapers, which manages the papers for Gannett Co. and Knight-Ridder Inc. under a joint operating agreement.

The strikers recently ended what became the nation's longest walkout at a major newspaper. In response, the agency on Feb. 19 said it would take back the 2,000 strikers - when openings occur.

Still, the end of the strike does not necessarily mean the dispute is cooling off. The workers are crying "lockout" and plan to file an injunction demanding that Detroit Newspapers take back all who want to return. They say they will continue to push a reader and advertiser boycott.

Moreover, the workers hope an administrative law judge will uphold a previous ruling that Detroit Newspapers has treated labor unfairly. Such a decision would require management to pay the workers for every day it fails to put them back on the job.

The chasm between management and labor runs so deep that the two have even disagreed over the causes for the dispute and whether the strike has ended. The unions say they are engaged in an ethical conflict, trying to stop executives from putting profit above a newspaper's duty to serve the public interest. For its part, Detroit Newspapers says it is trying to clear away labor "featherbedding" that hinders its competition with fast-growing media.

The wrangle is especially bitter, some participants and analysts say, because it represents a clash between two pillars of US democracy: organized labor and the Fourth Estate.

By some accounts, the dispute is over the shape of labor relations in the Information Age, as corporations turn from muscle power to brain power and from lifetime employment with full benefits to contingent labor. Indeed, management has relied heavily on technology to keep publishing throughout the strike. It used computer modems to skirt picket lines and helicopters to hop over printing-plant blockades.

The dispute has also been closely watched for what it indicates about the weakness of both organized labor and the strike as a union tactic. The lessons have been particularly bitter for organized labor coming, as they have, in Detroit, the capital of US unionism. Although showing some signs of renewal in the past year, union membership as a percentage of total employment has fallen to just 14.5 percent.

Finally, the conflict, occurring in what was once a city energized by competition between two rival newspapers, showcases the decline of the newspaper industry, say analysts.

Beneath these more sweeping themes, however, lie some simpler causes for the prolonged dispute. "Sometimes the general picture doesn't explain the local situation," says Thomas Leonard, associate dean of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

First, unyielding personalities can make compromise difficult. "There are personalities and quirks in Detroit that led to such a bitter confrontation," according to Mr. Leonard, a Detroit native.

Also, the strikers faltered for the lack of sophisticated preparation. When management overcame the worst sting of the strike and continued to publish, the strikers could rely on little more than their grit. Boycotts reduced advertising by more than 15 percent and circulation by more than 30 percent. But even such hits were not big enough. In the last quarter of 1996, the agency turned a profit.

In contrast, after negotiations broke down management set in motion a detailed strike plan. Most notably, the agency brought in staff from other newspapers in the two chains and hired replacement workers. "We are confident that the business [readers and advertisers] can grow back; we don't know how quickly," says Susie Ellwood, vice president of Detroit Newspapers.

"The unions have to learn that they have to be prepared and they have to expect that employers will fight with everything they have," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at the New York School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "Unions need to start the kind of comprehensive strategy before the contract expires and war is declared so as to make it clear to the employer that the cost is very high," says Ms. Bronfenbrenner.

"Unions have to realize that you have to have smarter strategies when you're going up against corporate giants that have an endless pot of gold," says Lengel.

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