Thousands march to support Detroit newspaper workers

by Pete Brown and Mark
(from Communist Voice #14, August 10, 1997)


. Thousands of workers and other activists marched in Detroit on June 21 in support of the struggle of the newspaper workers. The march was part of two days of events called "Action! Motown '97" organized by the AFL-CIO leaders to try and maintain credibility among the newspaper employees, despite the fact that they forced the newspaper workers to officially call off the strike last February. That tens of thousands of workers showed up for the march demonstrates that the newspaper workers continue to enjoy sympathy and support among wide sections of the working class despite the bureaucratic strangling of their strike by the AFL-CIO leaders.

Union leaders destroy the strike

. The mild legalist tactics pursued by the union leaders hamstrung the newspaper workers' struggle from day one, nearly two years ago. These sellout tactics reached their culmination in February when the national AFL-CIO bureaucrats ordered the local unions to call off their strike with an "unconditional offer to return to work. " But to cover up their capitulation the bureaucrats declared this to be a "new tactic" and at the same time announced plans for a national labor march in Detroit. (See the article, "Union leaders declare their failure a victory", in Communist Voice, March 1, 1997. )

. Calling off the strike did not get the workers their jobs back. Detroit Newspapers, Inc. had long since replaced them with scabs and announced they would only call back the strikers "as needed." As of late June only a couple hundred had been called back. So the strike is now converted into a lockout. But the bureaucrats' lame tactics continued to dominate.

Workers show solidarity

. Despite the severe setbacks brought by the AFL-CIO's tactics, news of the labor march brought workers from around the country. Various local unions sent representatives, and some unions sent contingents of hundreds. It was inspiring to see masses of workers turn out to support those in struggle. At the same time, it must be admitted that the size of the demonstration on June 21 was smaller than the 35,000 predicted by the union bureaucrats before the march or the 60-100,000 marchers they claimed afterwards. The actual number of participants was probably a good deal less than that, somewhere closer to 20,000. It was notable that despite that fact that there are numerous large UAW locals throughout Michigan, it appeared that in only a few locals did the bureaucrats make a push to turn out large numbers of workers for the event not even close to the numbers they turn out every year for their tame Labor Day marches.

. During the march many workers showed their anger against the newspaper bosses. Every newspaper box along the march route was smashed up by demonstrators. At the Detroit News building marchers loudly denounced the scab security personnel peering out of upper-story windows. Surrounded by thousands of like-minded comrades from a variety of places and occupations, workers could get some sense of the power of our class.

Trends among the participants

. The event was a good opportunity for workers to gain political experience because activists from around the country and diverse political trends participated. Of course the main events were dominated by the top national AFL-CIO leaders like John Sweeney and Richard Trumka, Teamster head Ron Carey, various phony "friends of the workers" from the Democratic Party like Representative David Bonior of Michigan, and Joseph Lowery, president of the black bourgeois organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. These were the main figures speaking at a rally that followed the June 21 march. They tried their best to sound militant and fool the workers into thinking that there really was a part of the capitalist establishment that they could rely upon. Hardly anyone in the crowd was listening anyway.

. Discussion among the rank and file was stimulated by activists who distributed literature. A notable feature of this literature was that even several of the left-wing groups that promote illusions in the trade union bureaucracy were forced to admit that the labor bureaucrats had screwed up a potentially powerful strike. Even Detroit's local entertainment guide, the Metro Times, carried articles with such a position.

. As usual, even such limited criticism of the AFL-CIO leadership was too much for the likes of the old-time revisionist "Communist Party, USA. " Their paper, People's Weekly World, simply offered quotations from the bureaucrats about how calling off the strike was "a new tactic. " Likewise, The Militant, newspaper of the Trotskyite Socialist Workers' Party, as usual offered no criticism of the bureaucrats in their article in the June 25 edition of their paper which summed up the June 21 actions.

Other left groups had at least some critique of the bureaucrats' handling of the strike. But most of them had a soft attitude towards the AFL-CIO bureaucracy overall. For instance, the Trotskyist publication The Organizer moaned about how the bureaucrats failed to shut down the production plants. But they, like the union bureaucrats, condemned any new actions not approved of by the bureaucrats as allegedly jeopardizing the union's legal maneuvers with the National Labor Relations Board. The paper Socialist Action crowed about the need for militant action while promoting Teamster boss Ron Carey, whose Teamster bureaucracy has directly intervened to end the strike. Still others to one degree or another raised the key issue of the workers building their own independent trend which doesn't wait for the bureaucrats to act. Even here, however, there was a strong tendency toward having exaggerated expectations of what can be accomplished through the union bureaucracy and in trends led by some mildly dissident local union leaders such as the Unity-Victory caucus that arose at one point during the newspaper strike.

. Meanwhile, the anarchist paper The Fifth Estate, which earlier in the strike was debating whether they could support the strike at all since it violated their principles against "class struggle," promoted an article from a writer who published another version of the article in the Industrial Workers of the World publication, Industrial Worker. This article condemned the bureaucrats' tactics, but also the idea of shutting down the production and distribution capabilities of the newspaper corporations. Instead, this article made wild claims that some unknown committee was organizing a general strike and that the real issue was to cause disruptions in Detroit, like occupying the Ambassador Bridge leading to Canada. This would allegedly pressure the Detroit city government to force the corporations to settle with the strikers. Of course militant protests in Detroit would be helpful. But since the article contends that the workers are so weak that they have no hopes of winning against even one corporation, it's hard to see how a general strike is going to soon materialize. While the article tosses around phrases like "general strike" its practical suggestions amount to having some protests around the city every so often while ignoring the key task of shutting down newspaper production and distribution facilities. This reasoning is actually just a "left"-sounding version of the tactics of the bureaucrats who themselves have organized any number of protests around the city as a diversion from the key task of shutting down plant production and distribution. The results speak for themselves.

Agitation of Detroit Marxist-Leninists

. Local supporters of Communist Voice participated in the June 21 march. The Detroit Marxist-Leninist Study Group (DMLSG) produced a leaflet with two articles, one on the newspaper strike and one on the general question of reviving revolutionary communism. (These articles are reprinted below. ) This was distributed at workplaces and helped spark discussion among workers there.

. The leaflet was also distributed at a June 20 teach-in on the newspaper strike at Wayne State University in Detroit. The teach-in drew some students and professors as well as hundreds of striking workers. During the distribution of the leaflet, a good deal of discussion centered around the prospects for the revival of communism, the importance of fighting revisionism, and (state-capitalist) Cuba.

. At the June 21 march, comrades of the DMLSG distributed the leaflet before and during the march. A few friends also marched with us and participated enthusiastically. After the march we stayed at the rally site for quite a while, distributing the leaflet and Communist Voice, and talking to other participants. Again, our article on reviving Marxism sparked some interesting discussion, some of it (with Trotskyists) quite heated. The Trotskyists like to pose as oh-so militant opponents of the Stalinist regimes, but when we clarify the bourgeois nature of these regimes they fly into a frenzy and fall back on their "military, but not political" support for these regimes. On Cuba, for example, the Trotskyist dogma against "socialism in one country" presumably would imply that Cuba, a small island country surrounded by capitalist states, could not possibly be socialist. But just try to clarify this by pointing out the state-capitalist nature of the Castro regime; suddenly the fierce "anti-Stalinists" turn into the most die-hard defenders of Castro's neo-Stalinist state. Such discussions show the importance of popularizing the struggle against revisionism, and confirm what our leaflet pointed out: "Trotskyism = revisionist twin. "

Judge rules in unions' favor

. A court ruling on June 20, the day before the march, gave the labor bureaucrats something to crow about at Action! Motown events. A U. S. administrative law judge ruled in favor of the unions' charge that Detroit Newspapers, Inc. had engaged in unfair labor practices that provoked and prolonged the strike. The judge ordered the corporation to immediately reinstate the strikers, to give them their jobs back even if this meant firing the "replacements. " The unions made their offer to return to work in February, and the judge ruled that the corporation owes workers back pay from that time until the time they are reinstated.

. Union leaders immediately proclaimed this a great victory and claimed that it vindicated the legalist tactics they have been pursuing for the past two years. They shouted, "Detroit Newspapers, Inc. stands condemned for all to see," as if this somehow resolved the strike/lockout. But even if the workers are called back, this does not change the fact that the strike was lost. The union bureaucrats can crow all they want, but the newspaper bosses have seen that no matter how provocative their attacks on the workers, the AFL-CIO officials are afraid to unleash militant mass actions to shut down scab production.

. The legal maneuvers in the wake of the defeated strike are not going to yield wonderful results either, even if successful. And success in the courts is far from guaranteed. For one thing, the corporation brushed aside the judge's ruling, saying they will appeal it. And those in the know say this appeals process could easily take many years.

. The AFL-CIO leaders have countered by getting the NLRB to agree to file for a "10(j)" injunction to enforce the judge's ruling while the appeals process goes forward. A hearing on this matter is scheduled to come before U. S. District Judge John Corbett O'Meara on July 31 and August 1. It is possible the judge will grant the injunction, but that remains to be seen. But the top bureaucrats are still proclaiming they expect workers to be back on the job "within a matter of weeks. "

. We shall see. But it should be pointed out that, even if all these things are resolved according to the bureaucrats' plans, that still leaves many strikers left out in the cold. In the first place, there are the 300 workers fired by newspaper bosses for strike-related activities. The judge's ruling does not address their situation, so they would remain fired. Secondly, there is the question of how many jobs will be available to ex-strikers even if they replace all the scab replacements. A good many of the original 2,000 or so jobs have been eliminated by the company since the strike began. Even the striker-produced paper The Detroit Sunday Journal admits that "limitations of a 10(j)" includes that "the companies will not have to call back all workers if they can prove production needs are reduced. " That's a potentially huge loophole because, using scab labor, the company has reduced its workforce by at least 600 employees. So there's a question of how many jobs are left to come back to even if the injunction is granted.

. This raises another limitation of relying on the legal apparatus of the capitalist government to solve the workers' problems. The boycott has cut circulation a good deal since pre-strike levels. Thus, the companies could argue that they have a need to reduce their workforce in proportion to their reduced circulation. This doesn't mean that the boycott, insufficient as it is, should be rejected. But it does mean that confining the workers' struggle to the means officially recognized by the courts inevitably weakens the struggle against the employers.

. And for those who did get their jobs back, conditions would be hellish. Going back under court order does not mean victory for the strikers. They would be going back to the same work rules and restrictions that provoked the strike two years ago, with various economic issues unresolved. Indeed, if the courts find, as they well might, that many hundreds of workers are no longer needed due to the elimination of their positions, the companies will have won one of their central demands that provoked the strike, the reduction of the workforce.

. Of course the union bureaucrats argue that once the workers are back on the job (well some, anyway) they will continue to fight for a good contract. But even the brief being filed with the judge by the NLRB states that there are "obvious indications from the unions that they will grant major concessions in order to bargain over reinstatement. " (Detroit Sunday Journal, July 13, 1997, p. 7) Evidently the AFL-CIO leaders' idea of a good contract is one that caves in to management demands. After two years of sacrifice and struggle by the rank and file, the union misleaders are preparing to bargain away their working conditions and jobs.

. Getting a good share of the workers their jobs back, at this point, would be a good thing, but in no way can the bureaucrats claim any kind of victory. In fact, their tactics have produced a series of defeats. Since they liquidated the mass actions at plant gates in September 1995, the strike went downhill. The issue remains, today as before, for the rank and file to get organized for militant mass action independently of the labor bureaucrats.

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