Detroit newspaper strike betrayed!

. The following article was the main content of Detroit Workers Voice #13, March 2, published
by the Detroit Marxist-Leninist Study Group. A first draft of this article appeared in Communist Voice #12, vol. 3, #1, March 1.

Union leaders declare their betrayal a victory

. After a year-and-a-half on strike, the Detroit News/Free Press employees have suffered another major betrayal by the sellout AFL-CIO bureaucrats. The union officials have told the greedy newspaper capitalists that they are calling off the strike and are willing to have the workers return to work under even worse conditions than those that initially led to the strike. So far the newspaper management has refused to let striking workers replace their scab workforce, however.

. The labor traitors swear they are ending the strike only to launch new tactics that will make the struggle more powerful. They have undertaken a big public relations campaign to smother widespread skepticism about this decision among the workers and their supporters. But the great "new" tactics are merely a continuation of the same basic course that has undermined the struggle from the start. Long ago the union bureaucrats sabotaged the workers' militant blockades of the main production and distribution points. Scab production was allowed to continue because supposedly encouraging advertisers and others to boycott the scab papers was all that was needed. Time and again the union leadership boasted that its tactics would bring the newspaper bosses to their knees. But actions speak louder than words. No matter what the bureaucrats say, these "effective" tactics have led to ending the strike on unfavorable terms. Yet the bureaucrats want to continue down this road to nowhere. Their "new" campaign continues to bank everything on boycotts and ignores the mass mobilization of workers necessary to shut down scab production.

. Thus the newspaper workers are fighting against steep odds. Not only do they face the wealthy and ruthless Knight-Ridder and Gannett media magnates, but they are being betrayed by their so-called leaders. This pattern is being repeated in strike after strike across the country. There is no way out unless the rank-and-file workers get organized in a new way, in a way that allows them to really exercise their potential might that today is held in check by the lords of the AFL-CIO.

Sacrificing the workers jobs and conditions

. While the sellout union leaders have called off the strike, the News/Free Press managements have refused to take back more than a handful of their former employees. So the union heads are basing their hopes on getting the National Labor Relations Board to order the company to accept back many of their former employees. It is not clear how the NLRB will rule. But if the AFL-CIO gets the NLRB injunction it wants, what will it mean for those who had been on strike? According to the union-run Detroit Sunday Journal of February 16th, 300 fired workers will still not get their jobs back. And the Journal admits that "the company only has to return enough strikers to meet its production needs." Since newspaper management has eliminated about 600 positions while running their operations on scab labor, apparently a like number of former strikers will also not be called back. Thus, a strike that began largely because the company wanted jobs eliminated is being called off with at best the loss of jobs for 900 of the 2,000 employees who had continued on strike. On top of that, workers called back would still be without a contract, and an injunction does not necessarily stop the company from imposing worse conditions of employment on former strikers. So if the union leaders' wishes come true, the company will still get the job cuts and other assaults on the workers that they originally wanted.

. Of course, it may be that the NLRB rules that the newspaper corporation does not have to take back any ex-strikers. Then again, even if the ruling favors the union bureaucrats, the company can hold up the decision with lengthy appeals. Even a labor consultant who the union leaders quote as a supporter of their plans admits that "the appeals process is so notoriously prolonged that a favorable judgment for the unions would be years past the point when the bargaining unit would be destroyed." (Steve Babson in Crane's Detroit Business, Feb. 24-March 2, 1997) Time and again the newspaper barons have stated they will not fire their scab workforce. So its quite possible that any NLRB decision will simply be ignored while, as a supporter of the AFL-CIO misleaders' scheme admits, the workers will slowly "be destroyed."

New tactics: see "old tactics"

. Of course, once some of the workers are back at work the union leaders say they will continue the struggle much as before. The fight "as before" however, is what led to the present crippled state of the struggle. Before the strike, the unions thought they could follow the old rotten pattern of granting a certain amount of concessions in order to placate the company. This time, however, the company was determined to ram all its demands down the workers' throats. The strike began.In September 1995, the union leaders organized several thousand workers to hold a march to the Sterling Heights production plant. They wanted a mere symbolic protest where the police would be allowed to let the scabs in. But once the workers gathered together, they put their own stamp on the action. The plant was shut down and the company goons and hundreds of police were unable to stop the militant action. These powerful actions had the newspaper corporation reeling.But seeing that they could not subdue the militancy of the workers, and cowering before a court injunction limiting the plant actions, the union leaders called off the plant protests.

. Having given up the most effective actions, the bureaucrats centered attention on having groups of workers picket advertisers and encouraging people not to buy the paper. A number of advertisers pulled their ads out of the newspaper, and many people stopped buying the papers. But it was clear that the giant newspaper chains were willing to use their empire-wide resources to weather some losses and wear down the workers. As the strike dragged on, it took its toll on the workers. Some left the area for other jobs while the cowardly stand of the union bosses sapped a good deal of militancy from the struggle. Meanwhile, the newspaper bosses began to cut the extent of their losses as production was normalized with scab labor. Time and again the national and local AFL-CIO officials promised some new version of the boycott would be the key to victory. But a series of scattered pickets at advertisers or brief sit-downs on city streets, while OK in themselves, was woefully insufficient.

. Now these tactics have proven so "effective" that the strike itself has been called off with nothing won. Sure, sometimes retreats are necessary in a struggle to allow the workers to gather their strength for a more powerful assault on the capitalists. But the union leaders are not merely taking a step back to gather strength for a more powerful onslaught. They are promoting their defeats as victories. They are doing this so they can keep continuing the same futile tactics. They will continue to have some sporadic actions here and there, while the newspaper owners continue to normalize their production and circulation without interference. In fact, since ending the strike has exposed the failure of the tactics recommended by the union leadership, and since the same tactics are to continue, this will spread further demoralization among the workers and confusion among strike supporters.

Deception used to sell the new tactics

. The union leaderships have rammed through their new policy despite much suspicion from among the rank-and-file. For instance, when Typographical Union Local 18 workers were initially told that the union leaders wanted to make an unconditional offer to return them to work, they voted overwhelmingly against it. So the unions officials have tried to rally support with a campaign of lies about what the new tactics mean. Even while basing their tactics on returning to work and while removing the words "on strike" from picket signs, the union bosses shouted that the strike was still on. As well, the union-run Detroit Sunday Journal has been falsely claiming that offers to return to work and product boycotts have produced wonderful results in other strike struggles.

. In the DSJ of February 23, the Bridgestone/Firestone strike is mentioned as an example of such tactics, but the outcome of this struggle was that the company won their main demands such as 12-hour shifts. Meanwhile, the DSJ falls silent about how these tactics failed miserably in such major battles as the Staley and Caterpillar struggles that ended in 1996. In these struggles too, the national AFL-CIO leaders promised to always stand with the workers, and local leaders sold this bill of goods to the rank-and-file. Instead, the bureaucrats imposed rotten settlements on the workers where many strikers were left jobless and working conditions were gutted. Indeed, even in the examples chosen by the DSJ to illustrate the "success" from following the union tactics, they confine themselves to bragging that an NLRB injunction got some workers their jobs back, and avoid mentioning whether or not the workers actually won the main issues for which they originally went on strike.

. The bureaucrats are now attempting to salvage their tattered reputation by agreeing to hold a large national solidarity march in Detroit in mid-June. Gathering thousands of workers for a show of solidarity is a good idea. But it in no way changes the overall path of betrayal taken by the AFL- CIO bureaucracy. Keep in mind that the AFL-CIO organized a big solidarity march in support of the CAT and Staley workers. They sabotaged militancy during the march and used such events to promote their bankrupt "boycott" tactics. Despite the occasional show of solidarity, the workers were eventually sold down the river. Militant workers should try to put their own stamp on the Detroit march, but no one should have illusions that the AFL-CIO bosses are changing their stripes.

What should the workers learn from these setbacks?

. Their is no point in pretending that continuing on the path of the bureaucrats will result in anything but generally undermining the ability of workers to resist the capitalist offensive. For the situation to improve, the workers must learn from these setbacks. The AFL-CIO apparatus is based on class collaboration, confining the workers' struggle and opposing any strides towards building unions that boldly defend the workers. When John Sweeney assumed leadership of AFL-CIO, he promised a new course, but nothing much has changed. Meanwhile, Teamster president Ron Carey, who is supposed to be one of the most radical top union leaders, has been a big force behind the tactics of betrayal in the Detroit newspaper strike. Until the rank-and-file organizes itself independently they will constantly be sabotaged by the bureaucrats, and further defeats are inevitable.

. When the newspaper and other workers were able to briefly break free from the shackles of AFL-CIO policy and shut down the newspaper plant, they got a glimpse of the workers' potential power. But for such glimpses to become a strong trend, the workers' movement must undergo a basic reorganization. Rank-and-file organizations oriented toward militant mass tactics are part of the solution.

. As well, the setbacks the workers are suffering everywhere shows that each struggle is part of an overall class struggle. The corporate onslaught against the workers also raises the question of what sort of future the workers can expect so long as the economy and political system are in the hands of a handful of wealthy corporations. The workers' present dilemma raises the question of building a class political party. Only a political force that is the most resolute opponent of capitalism itself, that isn't concerned with assuring the profit margins of the corporations, and that doesn't depend on the bourgeois establishment, can guide the present struggles along the most militant possible course. A party of this type is needed to carry out the tasks today that will put the workers on course to face the larger class battles of the future. Such a party will explain how it is that the end of the capitalist profit-system, and the end of the division of society into exploiter and exploited, is not only a nice dream, but that the material conditions for this are being created by capitalism itself. Such a class reorganization is needed if our potential power is to be utilized both in the immediate skirmishes and in the revolutionary struggle of the future. <>

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Last changed on October 16, 2001.