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The Broken Table

The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor

Chris Rhomberg

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

About the Author

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: Labor Day in America

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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...

Part 1. Worlds of Work: Economic and Civil Society

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pp. 23-24

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1. The Industry: Gannett and Knight-Ridder

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pp. 25-39

Few industries have been as romanticized in American popular culture as the newspaper business. Hollywood versions have ranged from classic films like Citizen Kane, The Front Page, and All the President’s Men to fictional thrillers like The Pelican Brief and State of Play, the biographical...

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2. Detroit: Labor and Community

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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...

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3. A "Daily Miracle": The Life of the Workplace

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pp. 56-70

In 1979, thirty-three-year-old Leo Jenkins Jr. left his factory job and hired on as a district manager for the Detroit 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...

Part 2. The Institutional Regulation of Labor

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pp. 71-72

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4. Proper Channels: U.S. Labor Law and Union-Management Relations

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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...

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5. The Path to Confrontation: The Newspapers' Joint Operating Agreement in Detroit

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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...

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6. Extraordinary Measures: Planning for War

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pp. 104-128

It seemed like perfect timing. On November 1, 1994, eight labor unions representing 2,600 workers struck at the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and their joint operating agency. The Bay Area newspapers chose to continue publishing during the walkout, resulting in a...

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7. War of Position: The 1995 Contract Negotiations

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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: the News and Free Press now enjoyed monopoly power in the DNA, while...

Part 3. The Spaces of Conflict

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pp. 149-150

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8. Worlds Collide: The Start of the Strike

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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...

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9. Law and Violence: Permanent Replacements and the Control of Collective Action

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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...

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10. Theaters of Engagement: Civil Society and the State

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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...

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11. Waiting for Justice: The Return to Work and the End of the Strike

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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...

Part 4. Governing the Workplace: American Labor Today

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pp. 257-258

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12. Conclusion: A Signal Juncture

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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...


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pp. 283-326


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pp. 327-368


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pp. 369-390

E-ISBN-13: 9781610447751
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871547170

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Newspaper publishing -- Michigan -- Detroit.
  • Newspaper employees -- Labor unions -- Michigan -- Detroit.
  • Collective bargaining -- Newspapers -- Michigan -- Detroit.
  • Strikes and lockouts -- Newspapers -- Michigan -- Detroit.
  • Newspaper Strike, Detroit, Mich., 1995-1997.
  • Knight-Ridder (Firm).
  • Gannett Company.
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