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Bill Wylie Kellermann
I am gladdened to see Stephen Lerner's fine summary of the direction now required by the labor movement. I read it from Detroit, where the newspaper strike will be one year old in July. This Unfair Labor Practice strike was forced by absentee corporations, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, who are prepared to absorb losses of $250 million as a one-time cost to break the unions. Locally, the conglomerates have fused the two dailies in a Joint Operating Agreement -- a single business operation which is itself a union-busting device and which in the long run will likely close one of the papers at a profit even for the dying journal.
Last fall the strike was quite bloody. The papers have hired Vance Security,
the paramilitary outfit employed by Pittston in 1989, and virtually bought the
police force of the suburban municipality in which their printing plant is located.
All the blood, by the way, belonged to the strikers.
Readers United, the independent community group which organizes the actions, is predicated on the conviction that the community has a huge stake in this strike. The conglomerates have long put profits not only before their employees, but before their readers as well. The contempt they demonstrate for their workers is one and the same with the contempt they have shown for our community. Globalization and the technological rush have not made these better papers. Marketing predominates; the real news hole shrinks; the establishment news slant is exemplified by strike coverage which is crafted as though by ad agency spin doctors; reporters come and go in the system without lives or roots in the city; crucial management decisions (like those effecting this strike) are made by people and structures who no longer live here either. The company strategy becomes a calculated assault on the political culture of a union town. We, as a community, must find ways of holding corporations accountable. While that is true of any and all corporations operating among us, it is highlighted in the present case by the crucial role daily newspapers must play in the life and fabric of a city.
It is only from this standpoint that I would criticize Lerner's appeal. The connection of the labor movement to communities is completely underdeveloped in his article. An industry-wide approach, though necessary, can lose sight of the fact that all organizing, like all politics, is local. In the recent successful campaigns -- be it West Virginia, Washington, or LA -- the community played substantial roles. It seems to me especially important if direct action is to disrupt the life of the community, that its members must be visible participants with workers.
But my point is more. Here the unions are grateful for the solidarity of the community in the boycott and direct action in support of the strike, but they seem clueless about their own role as participants serving this community. They were, for example, fully prepared to solicit the boycott, without also providing a strike paper -- an alternative source of essential community news.
Lerner opens the door on this, holding out a compatible goal when he suggests moving "beyond wages and working conditions to lead a broad-based movement for social and economic justice, and against the spiritual and moral poverty that tolerates racism and sexism and scapegoats society's most vulnerable members." He does too little, however, to flesh that out.
That said, I wish his remarks would be widely read in Detroit. As this strike approaches a year in length, the unions are at a crossroads, and the strategy he names is exactly what's required. I believe it is the only alternative to going down. It's time to get off the dime, or lose a big one in union town.