Hoffa and the Detroit Newspaper Strike:
by Tom Bernick
A Tale of Betrayal
As the Teamsters prepare to cast their ballots for president of their
union, they will be interested in learning how and why James P. Hoffa
betrayed the Detroit Newspaper Workers. After enduring a 19-month
strike and a subsequent lockout of nearly four years, two Teamster
locals were forced to accept contracts that could not have been worse.
Hoffa gave Gannett and Knight Ridder, publishers of the Detroit News and
Free Press under a joint operating agreement, virtually everything they
demanded-open shops, no amnesty for workers fired illegally, massive pay
cuts (about $5/hour for the mailers), and more.
Union members were told that all strike benefits would be cut off the
month following the scheduled votes and that failure to ratify would
enable the company to impose even more devastating conditions than those
already in effect. In fact, the company had already made all of the
changes it wanted, and the weakened contracts allow it to make almost
any other changes it wants in the future. As an added incentive for the
locals to approve the contracts, Hoffa promised to assist them in
organizing the scabs and to provide job training for fired workers. No
such help has ever been given.
The sellout of his members began soon after Hoffa took office in March
of 1999. One of his first acts as president was to fire Mike Zielinski,
the most effective Teamster field rep working on behalf of the newspaper
workers. Zielinski had formed the Workers Justice Committee, a group of
strikers that worked on the dispute full time under an enhanced benefits
program. The WJC organized demonstrations, picketed company facilities,
leafleted parking lots and neighborhoods, and engaged in various other
activities that exerted pressure on the company. Because of the success
of the WJC, newspaper executives hated and feared Zielinski more than
any other activist. His loss seriously and needlessly weakened the
unions. All requests for an explanation of why he was fired were
Hoffa allowed the WJC to exist after Zielinski's ouster, but forced it
to spend nearly all of its time working on the Overnite Transportation
strike rather than the newspaper strike. This, of course, greatly
pleased the company. When it became clear that his strategy at Overnite
was a failure, he abruptly cut off funding for the WJC, giving its
members, who had already suffered great economic hardships for nearly
five years, less than a week's notice that they would have to find other
Shortly after he became president, Hoffa had his minion Jon Rabine take
over contract negotiations from local union officials, even forbidding
them at times from attending bargaining sessions. Hoffa's goal was to
end the dispute at all costs, then proclaim victory in a cynical attempt
to portray himself as an effective leader. And this is exactly what he
did. In an interview in the Detroit News after the ratification votes,
Hoffa had the nerve to boast that he had negotiated "a good settlement"
for his members (4 February 2001).
Even more shocking were his subsequent actions. Soon after his shameful
contracts were signed in December of 2000, Detroiters began to see
billboards and signs on buses announcing the end of the strike and
urging the public to "support" the unions by again subscribing to the
papers. One would assume that the papers are financing this continuing
campaign; but, in fact, Hoffa and the Teamsters are picking up the tab.
And there's more. Hoffa attempted to organize a crew of paid fired and
locked-out workers to go door to door to drum up new subscribers to the
papers. His budget for this appalling plan is reported to be $300,000.
Not surprisingly, the integrity of the would-be recruits seems to have
killed this program before it could get off the ground. This from a man
who would not even put up a "No News or Free Press Wanted Here" lawn
sign in front of his Troy, Michigan, home during the strike.
The obvious question is, why did he take these actions? For one
thing, high Teamster officials like Hoffa, who are quick to shout, "One
day longer!" when the cameras are running, had long since grown weary of
the battle. But the main factor was the company's bogus RICO suit
against the unions. The papers sued for $62 million. If the case had
been pursued and they had won, they would have collected triple
damages. It was feared that even though the suit was without merit,
there were enough right-wing ideologues in the courts that a company
victory was a possibility. The unions had already learned in July of
2000 that their faith in a just judicial system was naive and
misguided. It was then that a Court of Appeals ruling by three Reagan
appointees overturned a unanimous NLRB decision (three Democrats and two
Republicans) that condemned the company for causing the strike by
violating federal labor laws. This immoral decision robbed the unions of
much of their bargaining leverage, giving Hoffa an excuse for caving
in. So great was his fear of this company that he also agreed to
contribute $1 million to its drive to regain lost circulation. In
return for his treachery, the papers dropped the suit. Despite the
Court of Appeals ruling, the unions still had a powerful weapon with
which to punish the company: the boycott. Management was convinced at
the beginning of the strike that it would collapse within six months.
But after five and a half years of extensive advertising campaigns and
deceptive reporting regarding the strike, the circulation of the papers
was down over 35% and still falling. Hoffa's contention that the unions
were left without any bargaining leverage was therefore not true.
Another factor motivating Hoffa's actions appears to be his desire to
ingratiate himself to the management of Gannett and Knight Ridder in the
hope that they will support efforts to remove the Teamsters from federal
oversight of the union. Owners of well over a hundred papers between
them, these two companies could exert a great deal of influence if they
pursued this goal nationwide. Indeed, an editorial has already appeared
in the Detroit News taking this position (11 February 2001).
But there may be one other element in the mix. As an additional reward
for his betrayal of the newspaper workers, it comes as no surprise that
Gannett and Knight Ridder seem to be supporting his candidacy for
president of the Teamsters by casting him in a favorable light through
the kind of biased reporting at which they both excel.
Three days after the contracts were ratified, Hoffa called a news
conference to declare an end to the boycott of the papers. This was
something he did not have to do. It was simply another favor to a
company that had just weakened two Teamster locals nearly to the point
of irrelevancy. Today, six years after the beginning of the strike,
many workers remain locked out and illegally fired while others are
harassed on the job. Hoffa may claim that the boycott has ended, but
ask rank and file union members and the thousands of Detroiters who
still refuse to buy those papers, and they will tell you that it will
continue until justice in the workplace is restored.