Striking out

July 18, 1995|By Robert McNatt

Detroit -- WHEN MY colleagues, the reporters and lower level editors of the Detroit Free Press, walked away from their desks at 8 p.m. last Thursday night, I was not with them.

They carried their floppy disks and Rolodexes, ready to trade the tools of their profession for picket signs, as another newspaper strike began.

I, on the other hand, had more domestic duties to attend to. Early that morning a woman from the day care center that my son attends had called to say that with a temperature of 103

degrees, Allen had to leave.

With my wife out of town and no baby-sitter available, I left the office, took him to the doctor and nursed him at home.

Thus I missed the only part of a strike that might remotely be considered fun: the adrenalin-charged march from the newsroom the sidewalk, where men and women clustered with picket signs, like Dr. Frankenstein's villagers gathering to torch the monster.

A few days later, Allen, with suitable medication and rest, is getting better. I fear I cannot say the same for the business that I work in.

Newspapers have, of course, been in bad shape for some time. Circulation at most big-city dailies has declined over the years, .. as consumers have decided to listen to Rush Limbaugh or watch Cable News Network or surf the Internet instead of reading.

Just the day after we struck in Detroit, for instance, the Times Mirror Co. announced that it would shut down New York Newsday, its Pulitzer Prize-winning tabloid, because it had lost $100 million over 10 years.

Here in Detroit, we're making money, but the situation is worse.

The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News, the other local daily whose workers struck at the same time, have, like Siamese twins, been wretchedly joined at the hip since 1989 through a federally sanctioned joint operating agreement.

In order to ensure that both papers survived a bruising circulation war, they were allowed to remain separate editorially, while consolidating business operations.

Until recently it has been a money-losing proposition for the Gannett Co., which owns the News, and Knight-Ridder Co., which owns the Free Press.

It was understood by the unions representing 2,500 workers at the two papers that times were tough, raises would be scarce and jobs would be lost. But sharing in the pain would have its reward when red ink eventually turned to black.

Last year it did, when the News and the Free Press made a profit of approximately $1 million per week. And yet we are on strike.

The issues are important, of course. But there are principles beyond manning levels, merit pay and who pays for the health insurance premiums.

Until larger questions than these are settled, workers and management at newspapers -- indeed in every industry -- will forever circle each other like street fighters in a dark alley, grappling in the shadows as each looks to land a fatal blow.

How much profit is a corporation entitled to? And why should a profitable business be entitled to higher profits when they come at the expense of the people who made profit possible in the first place? When is enough enough?

The newspaper business has its peculiarities, but it is still a big business like any other in America.

When it is losing money, workers are asked to sacrifice. When it is making money, they are called an impediment to making more.

I am a business reporter. Recently I interviewed a teller at a big Michigan bank that had just been sold to a foreign owner, at a tidy profit for its shareholders.

"Are you afraid of losing your job?" I asked.

"Well," she sighed, "nobody ever said these jobs were ours. Anyhow, we knew this was coming."

I don't know if this woman still has her job. I can't predict whether I or the teamsters or the mailers or any of the others walking the picket line ultimately will have jobs either.

The newspaper may even fold altogether, turning Detroit, now a wonderfully competitive news town, into another city with just one paper, a monopoly that cranks out cash for the stockholders.

For years I have covered the desperate moves of chief executives eager to hide their failures, their shortsightedness, their greed.

Usually they get fat bonuses or golden parachutes.

If the strike ends badly for labor, I will be angry and I will be sad. But I won't be surprised.

Like the lady at the bank, I knew it was coming.

Robert McNatt is a business reporter for the Detroit Free Press.

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