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  • The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor by Chris Rhomberg
  • Nicole S. Cohen
Chris Rhomberg, The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor (New York: Russell Sage Foundation 2012)

The Broken Table tells the dramatic story of the Detroit newspaper strike, a five-year strike by 2,500 workers in six unions against the Detroit Newspaper Agency (dna), a joint operating agency of Knight-Ridder, then-publisher of the Detroit Free Press, and Gannett, owner of the Detroit News (Gannett now owns both papers). Beginning in 1995, six years after the formation of a joint operating agreement between the two corporations – what Rhomberg calls “a legally sanctioned monopoly” (37) – workers struck over three unfair labour practices: the transfer of work from the printers’ bargaining unit without union negotiations; the unlawful declaration of a bargaining impasse by the dna as a strategy to impose merit pay on Newspaper Guild members; and the dna’s reneging on a commitment to bargain with the Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions (mcnu), which represented all six unions involved, on economic issues. And while Rhomberg demonstrates in great detail the transformation of newspaper labour practices in the decades leading up to the strike, which gave journalists, printers, circulation workers, and truck drivers plenty of issues over which to fight with management, he argues that the strike was about much more than wages and working conditions. At stake was the ability of management to freely restructure operations and to wrest control over production in an industry with a long history of craft unionism and worker control over the labour process and hiring. Ultimately, for workers, the strike was an effort to retain collective bargaining rights at a time when employers across North America began forcefully working to decimate unions. The Broken Table is the history of an important strike, but it is also a story about power: how it is mobilized, deployed, and negotiated during labour conflict. Such attention to power highlights the limitations of the collective bargaining framework in the United States.

Rhomberg draws on extensive research, including 100 interviews with key informants (striking workers, union leaders, company representatives, non-striking employees, civic leaders and public officials), news articles (including articles from the Detroit Sunday Journal, the newspaper striking workers published for four years), and thousands [End Page 377] of pages of legal records. The result is a richly detailed historical account that engages with strike theories to argue that under the political economic conditions of the post-1981 anti-union climate in the United States, the strike has been utterly transformed. Whereas once the strike was an economic tactic and protected legal right used by workers as part of an institutionalized collective bargaining process, it has been transformed into a “high-risk confrontation” (9) with increased likelihood of violence, state intervention, and the hiring of replacement workers – in short, a fight for the very existence of the collective bargaining relationship.

Rhomberg cites the Detroit strike as an “extreme case” that demonstrates the implications of the ongoing erosion of the New Deal accord, under which – and facilitated by the Wagner Act – the importance of the right to strike and the ability to collectively bargain was recognized. Although the institutionalization of collective bargaining severed labour negotiations from historic ties to communities and limited involvement to management and unions, Rhomberg argues that such a framework encouraged parties to reach a “peaceful, negotiated settlement.” (177) From the beginning, the Detroit strike encouraged nothing of the sort.

In the months leading up to the strike, as the mcnu worked to continue negotiations, dna management undertook unprecedented strike planning. Executives went to preview strikes at the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner, militarized its strike preparation by spending millions on security, including US$1 million for police overtime at newspaper production and distribution sites, and most contentiously, hired replacement workers to staff the newspapers’ production and distribution (at one point, replacements numbered 1,100). The hiring of replacement workers was key to enabling the papers to continue publishing despite striking workers’ best efforts at picketing and, for Rhomberg, demonstrates the major flaws in the...


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pp. 377-379
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