The Broken Table

The Broken Table

Chris Rhomberg
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    The Broken Table
    Book Description:

    When the Detroit newspaper strike was settled in December 2000, it marked the end of five years of bitter and violent dispute. No fewer than six local unions, representing 2,500 employees, struck against the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press, and their corporate owners, charging unfair labor practices. The newspapers hired permanent replacement workers and paid millions of dollars for private security and police enforcement; the unions and their supporters took their struggle to the streets by organizing a widespread circulation and advertising boycott, conducting civil disobedience, and publishing a weekly strike newspaper. In the end, unions were forced to settle contracts on management’s terms, and fired strikers received no amnesty. In The Broken Table, Chris Rhomberg sees the Detroit strike as a historic collision of two opposing forces: a system in place since the New Deal governing disputes between labor and management, and decades of increasingly aggressive corporate efforts to eliminate unions. As a consequence, one of the fundamental institutions of American labor relations—the negotiation table—has been broken, Rhomberg argues, leaving the future of the collective bargaining relationship and democratic workplace governance in question. The Broken Table uses interview and archival research to explore the historical trajectory of this breakdown, its effect on workers’ economic outlook, and the possibility of restoring democratic governance to the business-labor relationship. Emerging from the New Deal, the 1935 National Labor Relations Act protected the practice of collective bargaining and workers’ rights to negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment by legally recognizing union representation. This system became central to the democratic workplace, where workers and management were collective stakeholders. But efforts to erode the legal protections of the NLRA began immediately, leading to a parallel track of anti-unionism that began to gain ascendancy in the 1980s. The Broken Table shows how the tension created by these two opposing forces came to a head after a series of key labor disputes over the preceding decades culminated in the Detroit newspaper strike. Detroit union leadership charged management with unfair labor practices after employers had unilaterally limited the unions’ ability to bargain over compensation and work conditions. Rhomberg argues that, in the face of management claims of absolute authority, the strike was an attempt by unions to defend workers’ rights and the institution of collective bargaining, and to stem the rising tide of post-1980s anti-unionism. In an era when the incidence of strikes in the United States has been drastically reduced, the 1995 Detroit newspaper strike stands out as one of the largest and longest work stoppages in the past two decades. A riveting read full of sharp analysis, The Broken Table revisits the Detroit case in order to show the ways this strike signaled the new terrain in labor-management conflict. The book raises broader questions of workplace governance and accountability that affect us all.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-775-1
    Subjects: Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. About the Author
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction Labor Day in America
    (pp. 1-22)

    Labor day, September 4, 1995, came and went much as it had in previous years in Sterling Heights, Michigan, a predominantly white, middle-class suburb in Macomb County, exactly six miles north of Detroit. Clouds billowed in from over the Great Lakes to fill the late summer sky, while the sun kept temperatures seasonably warm. Local residents took advantage of the long weekend to go fishing or sailing or just stay at home and watch sports on television. In quiet neighborhoods of orderly streets and cul-desacs, families and friends gathered around dinner tables or backyard barbecues. In the evening hours, as...

    • Chapter 1 The Industry: Gannett and Knight-Ridder
      (pp. 25-39)

      Few industries have been as romanticized in American popular culture as the newspaper business. Hollywood versions have ranged from classic films likeCitizen Kane, The Front Page, andAll the President’s Mento fictional thrillers likeThe Pelican BriefandState of Play, the biographical dramaThe Soloist, and the Disney musicalNewsies. The strength of the popular myth is well grounded: in 1991 media scholar Michael Schudson wrote that the American newspaper was “the most representative carrier and construer and creator of modern public consciousness.”¹ For much of their history, local newspapers have served as a vital medium of...

    • Chapter 2 Detroit: Labor and Community
      (pp. 40-55)

      In 1950, detroit, michigan, was without a doubt the Motor City, an industrial powerhouse with a population of 1.8 million and close to one-third of a million manufacturing jobs within the city limits. Less than half a century later, the population had fallen to just over 1 million, and only 62,000 manufacturing jobs remained. Unemployment in 1992 was 17 percent, and one-third of city residents lived in households with cash incomes below the poverty line. During that time, the number of African Americans in Detroit grew from around 300,000 in 1950 to 770,000, or 76 percent of the total in...

    • Chapter 3 A “Daily Miracle”: The Life of the Workplace
      (pp. 56-70)

      In 1979, thirty-three-year-old Leo Jenkins Jr. left his factory job and hired on as a district manager for theDetroit Free Press, distributing newspapers to carriers, stores, newsstands, and coin-operated boxes, or “racks,” near his home on the west side of Detroit. The husky, genial Detroit native already had three sons delivering papers. Now he supervised up to fifty boys, girls, and adult carriers in his district. Under the “buy-sell” system, Jenkins and his crew would collect money from subscribers and retailers, pay for the papers at wholesale, and keep the difference; together, they acted as small-business persons and neighborhood...

    • Chapter 4 Proper Channels: U.S. Labor Law and Union–Management Relations
      (pp. 73-87)

      The worlds of the workplace and the neighborhood, or industrial relations and community life, appear to our twenty-first-century eyes to be almost entirely separate. To an observer in late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century America, however, the links between these worlds would have been obvious. In the 1880s, the Knights of Labor attracted a cross-class alliance of small producers in a mass movement that sprang up in cities and towns throughout the country. Later, the craft unions in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) organized skilled workers into urban building trades and central labor councils to regulate local labor markets.¹ The...

    • Chapter 5 The Path to Confrontation: The Newspapers’ Joint Operating Agreement in Detroit
      (pp. 88-103)

      Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the business pages of American newspapers buzzed with talk of corporate restructuring, employment downsizing, and a new “lean” style of organization. Repeated waves of mergers and acquisitions made whole departments of large firms redundant as established companies reinvented themselves to maximize shareholder value, and managers and workers alike often scrambled to find their way on unfamiliar terrain.¹ Social scientists and journalists have amply documented these dislocations, but under the free market ideology of the time they seemed somehow necessary and unavoidable, like the imposition of a law of nature. In fact, the changes taking place...

    • Chapter 6 Extraordinary Measures: Planning for War
      (pp. 104-128)

      It seemed like perfect timing. On November 1, 1994, eight labor unions representing 2,600 workers struck at theSan Francisco Chronicle, theSan Francisco Examiner, and their joint operating agency. The Bay Area newspapers chose to continue publishing during the walkout, resulting in a bitter and sometimes violent confrontation that lasted for two weeks. In Detroit, DNA executives were gearing up for their own upcoming contract negotiations and felt that the San Francisco strike might offer a valuable preview. “[We] thought this was an opportunity for our individuals to see firsthand a strike situation that was ongoing in our industry,”...

    • Chapter 7 War of Position: The 1995 Contract Negotiations
      (pp. 129-148)

      They knew it was not going to be easy. The leaders of the Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions approached the 1995 negotiations warily, anticipating a struggle. They knew their power was not what it once was: theNewsandFree Pressnow enjoyed monopoly power in the DNA, while advances in technology had made it easier to produce and perhaps even deliver a newspaper during a strike. The 1992 contract had bought a provisional and uneasy peace, but relations on the job had since deteriorated, leading to numerous grievances and arbitrations. Now the newspapers were demanding more concessions, and militarized...

    • Chapter 8 Worlds Collide: The Start of the Strike
      (pp. 151-176)

      It was right out of central casting. About an hour or so before the strike began, a violent midwestern thunderstorm rolled into southeastern Michigan, bursting with lightning and rain and turning the July evening sky an ominous shade of purple and green. “That whole day was one of the tensest days I had ever experienced at work,” saidFree Pressreporter Bill McGraw. “There was that electricity in the air, literally and figuratively, so it was just a very strange and tense night.”¹ Reporter Michael Betzold, McGraw’s colleague at theFree Press, agreed. “There was a sense that this rift...

    • Chapter 9 Law and Violence: Permanent Replacements and the Control of Collective Action
      (pp. 177-196)

      Why did they not step back? What incentives drove the newspapers to escalate their war against the unions, and what mechanisms reinforced their determination? How did the historical context allow them to make the choices they did, and what resources did they mobilize in pursuit of their objectives? The answers, I argue, lie in the erosion of the larger New Deal order. With the rise of the anti-union regime in the 1980s, the law no longer served to steer the actors toward a peaceful, negotiated settlement. Rather than absorbing conflict within institutional channels, the new regime actually raised the likelihood...

    • Chapter 10 Theaters of Engagement: Civil Society and the State
      (pp. 197-226)

      The start of the New Year marked another turning point in the development of the strike, one that again signaled the changed landscape of industrial conflict in the United States. By January 1996, the newspapers had effectively countered the traditional forms of strike mobilization used by the unions. In the alliance with the Sterling Heights police, the aggressive policy of firing picketers, the injunction at the North Plant, and the pursuit of the federal RICO charges, the companies used a combination of law enforcement and judicial repression to contain the strikers’ collective action. Constrained by these barriers, the unions were...

    • Chapter 11 Waiting for Justice: The Return to Work and the End of the Strike
      (pp. 227-256)

      Conventional theories of how workers mobilize during strikes developed especially in the 1970s and 1980s in American social science. Such theories often argued that labor militancy in the postwar United States had been incorporated into a stable system of legal regulation. Researchers claimed that “strike action in the U.S. prior to the late 1940s occurred in a wholly different environment than did insurgency after this point in time,” as sociologist Holly McCammon notes. “During the late 1940s the context of workplace negotiations became ‘institutionalized.’ The U.S. state now granted workers a legal right to organize and bargain in the workplace...

    • Chapter 12 Conclusion: A Signal Juncture
      (pp. 259-282)

      Conventional news accounts of labor issues, media scholar Christopher Martin writes, commonly tell a story organized by certain value assumptions, or “frames.” Among these frames are, first, the idea that the “consumer is king,” meaning that readers are addressed in terms of the values of individual private consumption. Second, the experience of consumption is divorced from the process of production. Except for the occasional scandal affecting consumer safety,howgoods and services arrive in the market is generally invisible and not a matter of public concern. Since production is mostly offstage, the principal actors in the economy appear instead to...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 283-326)
  11. References
    (pp. 327-368)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 369-390)