Stop the Presses!
Twenty years ago, Detroit became embroiled in a titanic newspaper strike
Critical Moment interviews activist and former striker Barb Ingalls
By D. Sands
Twenty years ago this July, 2,500 newspaper workers from the Detroit News and Free Press engaged in the most contentious strike our region has seen in a generation. Confronted with dramatically unfavorable changes in working conditions, the Michigan Council of Newspaper Unions voted to strike after bargaining broke down with the Detroit Newspaper Agency [DNA], the partnership that managed operations for the two papers on behalf of the Gannett and Knight-Ridder newspaper syndicates. The Teamsters quickly followed, launching union members into a bitter, bloody struggle. Barb Ingalls was working part-time and became a dedicated striker. Critical Moment spoke with her recently to get a better picture of the historic labor battle’s significance with two decades of hindsight.
What was your job when the strike happened?
I was in the old printer’s position. We built the ads that went in all the papers. I worked for the partnership that was created by the JOA. You have to go back to the Joint Operating Agreement for the whole story. In 1989, at the insistence of Gannett and Knight-Ridder, the Justice Department granted a Joint Operating Agreement, which kept the two editorial voices separate, but created the DNA. So where I worked, I worked for both newspapers.
What role did the newspapers have in precipitating the strike?
They bargained to impasse and refused to go any farther. As far as I can glean, the sticking points were staffing levels and merit pay. My union had very little to argue with. Our stuff went through very quickly, but because we were with the Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions, we sank or swam for the rest of them.
Why do you think the papers did this? Why not settle?
To bust the union. To make an example for all other unionized newspapers and to save themselves a ton of money. I think the whole thing was planned, and a few things went wrong for their plans.
What can you tell me about the general tenor of the strike?
The company was very violent. They were ready to physically crush us. There were a lot of terrible confrontations in Sterling Heights and in Detroit. It became pretty obvious how entirely prepared and ruthless the company was going to be. For instance, finding every single off-duty officer in the metropolitan area completely armed with full riot gear, waiting for us on Mound Round [near 16 Mile, a major printing plant], was just a complete shock. I mean they called it Treasure Island, the median on Mound Road, because that’s where all the money was. There were Redford Township, Livonia cops, Ann Arbor Cops. Cops from everywhere came out to pick up overtime.
Any particular incidents that stick out in your mind?
Another striker and I drive out to Sterling Heights, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. We pull up and all we can smell is pepper spray in the air. All these people milling around. We cross over to the newspaper side. That was the night of “Jack the Kicker.”
That night an off duty Sterling Heights cop grabbed a striker out of the line, threw him on the ground, kicked him into unconsciousness. I thought I was in a newsreel from the 1930s. It was at that moment I realized that this was genuinely right and wrong. Guys in cutoffs and t-shirts carrying picket signs versus cops you saw in pictures of Eastern Europe. Just unbelievable.
And then I was there the night that the truck drove into the group at Gate 3. And then the night that we were at Clayton Street and a Detroit cop just went after my husband and just beat him into the ground. After that, it’s like: “I’m not leaving the fight until it’s over.”
And other unions were supporting the strike?
Everyone in a union all over the country came out. The UAW, I have a debt of gratitude to them that can never be repaid. The rank and file members, officers. They went out of their way, but also the IBEW, the Wobblies. Every union. It was not an unusual thing to meet people from almost anywhere out at Sterling Heights. The solidarity was just amazing.
The Wobbly Kitchen had its roots in this too, right?
One of the greatest things that happened during that time was the Wobblies. You know the IBEW was actually forced to cross the picket line in the strike. Something that nobody likes to talk about. And a lot of those guys were just so deeply ashamed that their union signed that contract. You know the IBEWs still like that. The Wobblies naturally. But what they did was they banded together and they started with what they called Ox Roasts. They were big hall parties in the union halls, and strikers could go free or for $3 if they could afford it. It was like the only night out that a lot of these guys ever had. To be able to go with your kids, and you could smoke in the union halls in those days. Big giant hall parties every week, and then they started bringing food to the picket lines. They’d show up with sandwiches and hot chocolate and soups. In the worst weather there was always something hot to eat. And they’re the ones that renovated the Sunday Journal offices. If you go up into the top offices of the Anchor now, the reasons that there’s electricity and heating and cooling is because these guys all came in and volunteered to make it a real office. Again, people that had no personal dog in the fight went out of their way to help us. And those guys were on every picket line, on the front lines, putting their hearts into it just like us. As strikers, They were magnificent. People like that taught me everything I ever need to know and will know about solidarity, which is a real thing, not just something you sing in a song.
What was your role in the strike?
My union president asked me to go to work right on the Human Services Committee. I was contacted by the UAW and the AFL-CIO, and we printed up the first newspaper called the Detroit Union….It was mostly Detroit News writers that worked with me. We put out three issues before basically we got kicked out. We sort of quit, because we didn’t like the interference from the more corporate unionists. I went to work with The Sunday Journal at that point, and I ran the classified ads.
Any conflicts with scabs?
All the time. [laughs]. I used to really like bothering scabs. We used to throw pennies at them. “Come one, you’ll do anything for money. Here’s a penny,” we’d bark at them. Walk down the street and bark at them. Harassing scabs was more fun than it really should of been. I’ve rethought that strategy a lot since then. It’s not helpful, but it felt really good at the time. And they used to hang out the windows and wave dollar bills at us. They were terrible.
Tell us about the community support for the strike.
The community was overwhelmingly in favor of the strike. People would watch TV, leave the TV on, and drive down to Sterling Heights. It was unbelievable, but everybody supported it. You would go down streets and every house would have a “No Scab Paper” sign. The newspapers have never been even close to getting over the losses of subscribers and ads.
How and when did the strike end?
The strike ended in 1999 with a whimper. The official strike strategy was around the legal cases of unfair labor practices. We won every single court case. All the way up to the final appeal, when we lost.
That night, I had to go to work. Oh my god! I could not speak. Everyone was staring at me as I walked in the room and sat down at my desk. I could hear people whispering and I heard the boss say: “Just stay away from her.”
What’s the legacy of the strike? Is there anything good that came out of it in your eyes?
For me, Yes. For the newspaper business, we held off in Detroit what happened in other cities. They’re finally doing the things that they meant to do 20 years ago. They have lost millions and millions of dollars; they’ve spent millions and millions of dollars. They thought we would fold in nine months. We thought they would stop in nine months. And we made them hold out for nearly six years.
I think the bad news of the strike is that there’ll be no more long strikes like that in America. For me and for people like me, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. What else could you do? It still kills me that we lost. I think we could have won it. Maybe not, that’s a lot of money they were pouring into it.
Any lessons for young union activists today?
Yeah! So about halfway through the Sunday Journal…it seemed to me it just wasn’t working, so I started going on the road with a group of strikers and we were following something called the corporate campaign. During that time, the head of the Teamsters union was Ron Carey. He hired a bunch of very innovative organizers. They devised this corporate program which included going to all the Gannett and Knight-Ridder shareholder meetings. We also went after the worst bastards at their homes, workplaces, where they partied.
We followed the scab writer Mitch Albom around a lot. Just a disgusting excuse for a human being. Every time he did a public appearance, union members would show up at his signings and give ‘em hell and chase ‘em out. It was amazing and it was effective.
We even made Rosalynn Carter, the famous wife of Jimmy Carter, quit the board of Gannett. Soon we convinced the unions to pay 50 strikers to do this work full time. It was called the Workers Justice Committee. I must have been in New York City and Boston 20 times during those years.
We crashed the Harvard Business School commencement. We chased them up and down the Detroit River in boats. We did all sorts of stuff to keep the strike alive. To keep them understanding that the fight wasn’t over.
One October, we went to every single house in Roseville. The newspapers had launched a campaign that the strike was over and everyone could subscribe to the paper again. We went to every single house and said, no its not true. No newspapers delivered in Roseville after we were done.
Anything else you want to say?
An injury to one is an injury to all. If you don’t think it can happen to you: look at this group of newspaper writers, photographers, graphic designers. They thought they were white collar professionals, and they got their heads busted in just like everybody else.
The stress that people went through on a day-to-day basis was just a killer. It was not unusual to go into a corner in the Sunday Journal office and find someone just huddled in a corner weeping. It physically hurt me. It was impossible to understand how your employers could hate you so much they could try to run you down. It can’t be underestimated.
I can forgive a lot of things: I really think we should have handled the scabs differently. But it took almost 20 years to come to that. Learning about people and knowing about strategy, we could have done a lot more. We could have had a better inside game. But I will loathe those corporate bastards ‘til the day I die for what they did. Motherfuckers! Quote me on that.
Editor’s Note: Readers might notice the print version of our Summer 2015 issue had a different looking cover than we normally have. This was done intentionally as an homage to The Sunday Journal, the union strike paper that was published during the Detroit Newspaper strike.