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Chris Rhomberg, The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor.

Chris Rhomberg, The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor (New York: Russell Sage Foundation 2012)

The Broken Table tells the dramatic story of the Detroit newspaper strike, a five-year strike by 2,500 workers in six unions against the Detroit Newspaper Agency (DNA), a joint operating agency of Knight-Ridder, then-publisher of the Detroit Free Press, and Gannett, owner of the Detroit News (Gannett now owns both papers). Beginning in 1995, six years after the formation of a joint operating agreement between the two corporations--what Rhomberg calls "a legally sanctioned monopoly" (37)--workers struck over three unfair labour practices: the transfer of work from the printers' bargaining unit without union negotiations; the unlawful declaration of a bargaining impasse by the DNA as a strategy to impose merit pay on Newspaper Guild members; and the DNA'S reneging on a commitment to bargain with the Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions (MCNU), which represented all six unions involved, on economic issues. And while Rhomberg demonstrates in great detail the transformation of newspaper labour practices in the decades leading up to the strike, which gave journalists, printers, circulation workers, and truck drivers plenty of issues over which to fight with management, he argues that the strike was about much more than wages and working conditions. At stake was the ability of management to freely restructure operations and to wrest control over production in an industry with a long history of craft unionism and worker control over the labour process and hiring. Ultimately, for workers, the strike was an effort to retain collective bargaining rights at a time when employers across North America began forcefully working to decimate unions. The Broken Table is the history of an important strike, but it is also a story about power: how it is mobilized, deployed, and negotiated during labour conflict. Such attention to power highlights the limitations of the collective bargaining framework in the United States.

Rhomberg draws on extensive research, including 100 interviews with key informants (striking workers, union leaders, company representatives, non-striking employees, civic leaders and public officials), news articles (including articles from the Detroit Sunday Journal, the newspaper striking workers published for four years), and thousands of pages of legal records. The result is a richly detailed historical account that engages with strike theories to argue that under the political economic conditions of the post-1981 anti-union climate in the United States, the strike has been utterly transformed. Whereas once the strike was an economic tactic and protected legal right used by workers as part of an institutionalized collective bargaining process, it has been transformed into a "high-risk confrontation" (9) with increased likelihood of violence, state intervention, and the hiring of replacement workers--in short, a fight for the very existence of the collective bargaining relationship.

Rhomberg cites the Detroit strike as an "extreme case" that demonstrates the implications of the ongoing erosion of the New Deal accord, under which--and facilitated by the Wagner Act--the importance of the right to strike and the ability to collectively bargain was recognized. Although the institutionalization of collective bargaining severed labour negotiations from historic ties to communities and limited involvement to management and unions, Rhomberg argues that such a framework encouraged parties to reach a "peaceful, negotiated settlement." (177) From the beginning, the Detroit strike encouraged nothing of the sort.

In the months leading up to the strike, as the MCNU worked to continue negotiations, DNA management undertook unprecedented strike planning. Executives went to preview strikes at the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner, militarized its strike preparation by spending millions on security, including US$1 million for police overtime at newspaper production and distribution sites, and most contentiously, hired replacement workers to staff the newspapers' production and distribution (at one point, replacements numbered 1,100). The hiring of replacement workers was key to enabling the papers to continue publishing despite striking workers' best efforts at picketing and, for Rhomberg, demonstrates the major flaws in the Wagner model of collective bargaining. Under this model, the state retains power to determine if a strike is one of "economic" issues or "unfair labour practices," which determines if a company can hire replacement workers. By going to great lengths in the courts to demonstrate that the strike was over economic issues, the DNA was able to hire replacement workers and continued to publish papers. Such a practice makes strikes much longer and more difficult for unions to win, as the Detroit case demonstrates. It also undermines unions' strike efforts and puts labour conflict on extremely uneven ground from the start. As Rhomberg vividly demonstrates, the presence of replacement workers encourages violence and intensified hostility, and foregrounds the state as a central player in labour negotiations.

The Broken Table portrays plenty of drama on the streets of suburban Detroit, where workers held lively protests--often supported by thousands of community members and labour allies--and clashed with security and police. But because of the use of replacement workers, much of the strike played out in courtrooms. In 1997, the unions made unconditional offers to return to work after nineteen months on strike, but the DNA would take back only a small portion of workers, keeping replacements on. The National Labor Relations Board found the DNA guilty of prolonging the strike and of unfair labour practices that caused the strike, and ordered the DNA to immediately reinstate workers. The company appealed, launching a protracted legal process that ultimately ended in 2000 when the unfair labour practice charge was overturned by the federal appeals court, forcing unions to accept contracts on management's terms. All six unions settled by 2000, but the damage was deep: many longtime employees were fired (Rhomberg includes brief portraits of select workers, personalizing the story of the strike) and legal appeals dragged on further.

As the book's title suggests, the bargaining table--a metaphor for the collective bargaining framework governing labour negotiations in the United States is broken. Rhomberg's historical account of the Detroit newspaper strike provides a deep understanding of a critical strike that has had lasting implications for all involved, but also offers important lessons for today's workers and unions. In our contemporary anti-union and anti-worker climate, with growing numbers of workers' struggles occurring outside of trade unions and a collective bargaining framework, social movements, citizens, and community members have critical roles to play in mobilizing support and pressuring employers. The Detroit newspaper workers received extensive community support through participation in demonstrations, boycotts, and building coalitions. Rhomberg demonstrates that such solidarity signals a return to pre-New Deal era relationships with communities, where sympathy strikes, boycotts, and other consumer actions were central to workers' protest repertoires.

It is an interesting time to revisit the labour history of newspapers. Today's digitally enabled newsrooms, populated by a thin core of employees and an expanding freelance workforce, seem starkly different to the large, unionized newsrooms Rhomberg describes, with their dense layers of reporters, editors, printers, circulation and delivery workers, advertising departments and, significantly, union representation. Yet, while the transformation of newspapers in a digital age is in flux, news workers still labour for large, powerful organizations pushing for a high-speed reorganization of work without unions to protect workers and give them a voice. The Broken Table makes clear the implications of regarding unions as a historical relic at a time when newsworkers need them more than ever.

Nicole S. Cohen

University of Toronto Mississauga
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Author:Cohen, Nicole S.
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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