Union Mad

Last Wednesday a group of South Florida labor unions held a press conference announcing a campaign to urge their brethren to cancel their Miami Herald subscriptions in a show of solidarity with striking newspaper employees at the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News. The next day, a story on the front page of the Herald's business section noted that the boycott had been called because Knight-Ridder, which publishes the Herald, also publishes the Free Press. The article also quoted Knight-Ridder chairman Tony Ridder, who criticized the campaign on the grounds that the Detroit strike has nothing to do with Miami.

Herald publisher Dave Lawrence, who was publisher of the Free Press before being transferred seven years ago to Miami, apparently felt the news story was inadequate. In a companion piece published alongside the article, under the heading "A Note from the Publisher," Lawrence offered a few choice words of his own -- "the real story behind the announced boycott," as he put it.

"Angry that threats and violence haven't given them control in Detroit, they have descended on us. They will do almost anything to get their way," Lawrence wrote, portraying the strikers as greedy and suggesting that the boycott effort was un-American. "Don't tell me you believe in a free press and in the same breath try to strangle a newspaper," he concluded.

Union organizer Ed Feigen, who is coordinating the AFL-CIO's efforts here, is incensed by Lawrence's gall. "To run an editorial on the front page of the business section is an abuse of his power," Feigen fumes. "It is outrageous. He doesn't even give us an opportunity to give our side of the story. It seems like Dave Lawrence is the one who will do anything to get his way, including violating the tenets of good journalism."

As Feigen sees it, South Florida is a logical target for a boycott. "Miami is Knight-Ridder's corporate headquarters, and the Miami Herald is their flagship newspaper. If Knight-Ridder won't listen to us 1000 miles away in Detroit, we think we have a better chance of getting them to listen to us here," he reasons. Lawrence's claim that the strike "has nothing to do with the Herald," too, seems disingenuous: Knight-Ridder recruited Herald employees to go to Detroit soon after the strike began this past July to cross picket lines and fill vacated slots at the Free Press.

Until the strike, 44-year-old Tom Chase had spent 26 years working the printing presses in Detroit. For the past week, he and a half-dozen of his colleagues have been holed up just north of the airport, in the union hall of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers on NW 36th Street, dialing their way through phone lists of local union members and asking for support. (A similar campaign is being waged nationally against USA Today, which is owned by Gannett, which also owns the Detroit News. Gannett and Knight-Ridder operate the two Detroit papers under a joint operating agreement.)

"I love my job," Chase says. "And I was good at it. I don't like being on strike -- you feel helpless." He's able to make ends meet, says Chase, because his wife works as a secretary at a church. "I've given my heart and soul for the company," Chase says. "In the past when they wanted concessions, we've given them concessions. We haven't had a pay raise in six years. We've done everything they asked of us to make these newspapers profitable, and now they've forced us out onto the street. I was naive. I thought this company would show its workers some loyalty, but I was wrong and I feel betrayed."

Mel Townsend worked as a truck driver. "I've worked there for 35 years," Townsend says. "I'm 53 years old. I don't want to be on strike: If I lose my job, who's going to hire me? But we were pushed against the wall and we had no choice." As for Lawrence's statement that the strikers are trying to strangle a free press in Miami, Townsend says the publisher is being hypocritical. "Knight-Ridder is the company that worked with Cox Newspapers to fold the Miami News, giving the Herald a virtual monopoly in this town," he says.

Townsend's wife leaps up from her seat with a smile and a thumbs-up sign. "He's cancelling!" she announces, covering the mouthpiece of her phone. She quickly places a conference call to the Herald's circulation office and listens in while the subscriber drops his subscription.

"All of a sudden I've become an activist," Charlotte Townsend laughs later. "I was never like this before, but this is our livelihood." She once worked for the Detroit News, she explains, but her involvement now is strictly in support of her husband. They have lost their health insurance and in order to keep up the house payments and cover other expenses they're having to spend the money they'd set aside for their fifteen-year-old son's college education. Like many of the 2000 other families on strike, they've also had to turn to the union's food bank for groceries.

"We're not greedy and we're not violent," she says in response to Lawrence's invective. "We are just trying to stand up for ourselves. There are principles involved here. When somebody treats you badly, you have to fight back."

Adds Daniel Hebert, who has worked on the presses in Detroit for 29 years: "Lawrence is in his own little world. Financially I've been able to handle the strike. But we've got younger people who are losing their homes standing up to this company. What the company is doing is wrong."

The National Labor Relations Board would seem to agree. After reviewing the events leading up to the strike, the NLRB found sufficient evidence to support the allegation that Knight-Ridder and Gannett refused to bargain in good faith, thereby forcing the walkout. The board has filed formal charges against the two companies; a hearing will ultimately decide the issue.

The AFL-CIO's Ed Feigen says the Herald boycott effort will continue until the strike is over, with a new group of Detroit strikers dispatched each week to staff phone banks in Dade and Broward.

As part of the campaign, the visiting strikers also attend various union gatherings, where they talk about the strike and present a twenty-minute videotape, a mix of TV news clips and raw video footage showing police and private security guards wading into crowds of striking newspaper workers, beating them with clubs and batons.

"When our members see videotape of Knight-Ridder's hired goons beating up workers on the Detroit picket lines, they don't think twice about dumping the Herald," says Mike Ozegovich, secretary-treasurer of the South Florida AFL-CIO. "Nobody wants to contribute a dime to the Herald knowing that Knight-Ridder will send their money to Detroit to hire goons."

Local union leaders are also able to hear personal accounts of the violence from mailroom worker Steve Munson. On the first night of the strike, Munson says, he took off in his car after a delivery truck so a picket line could be set up at the distribution site. "We were going about 65 miles an hour when these two cars filled with private security guards started ramming us," Munson recounts. "They didn't stop until they ran us into a ditch." The driver of one of the cars was eventually arrested and charged with assault.

Ed Feigen is confident the South Florida boycott will take hold, despite the fact that Miami is by no means a hotbed of union activism. "If Knight-Ridder can destroy the unions in Detroit, then workers everywhere have reason to be worried," he contends. "Dave Lawrence can unilaterally eliminate 300 jobs and unilaterally declare that there won't be pay raises at the Herald for six months, and workers here have no way to question or challenge it," Feigen adds, commenting on the recent layoffs at the Herald. "And now he's complaining that efforts to start a boycott down here are going to cost more jobs, and he tells people he doesn't want to see that happen. Dave Lawrence expressing concern for people who are being laid off is like Freddy Krueger expressing concern for slashing victims."

Last week Feigen challenged Lawrence to appoint an independent commission to determine the exact number of people who have canceled their subscriptions or agreed not to buy the newspaper from news racks. "Lawrence is the one who started the numbers game," Feigen says, in reference to the Herald publisher's contention that only a handful of people had canceled their subscriptions. (The union claims more than 500 have either dropped home delivery or agreed to stop buying the paper.)

Reached by phone in his car, Lawrence stands by his published attack on the unions and says he is rejecting the offer to appoint an independent commission. ("I have no intention in participating in their games," he snaps.) "I have no apologies whatsoever for defending my newspaper and the newspaper of hundreds of thousands of people in South Florida," Lawrence shouts. The news story alongside his note gave the unions a chance to state their case, he argues, noting that it "had a larger headline.


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