The Common Good
January-February 1996

Readers Before Profits

by Bill Wylie-Kellermann | January-February 1996

Calling corporations and unions to their true vocations in the Detroit newspaper strike.

These corporations have no loyalty to the city of Detroit, no respect for our culture as a union town, no concern for the Detroit strikers and their families who are in danger of losing their homes as the strike drags on. -Grace Lee Boggs, community activist

It has struck me more than once how thoroughly our response to the newspaper strike ongoing in Detroit has been shaped by a theological comprehension of the principalities and powers. It proves both illuminating and practical.

The situation is this: Last July, six unions representing 2,600 workers were forced to strike when the company demanded another round of deep job cuts and refused to operate under the old contracts while bargaining new. Almost immediately it announced the hiring of "permanent replacement workers."

"The company" in this case comprises the two largest newspaper conglomerates in the country. Gannett, owner of the Detroit News (not to mention USA Today), holds 81 other papers, by which it made profits last year of $636 million. Just a

week after the strike began, Gannett initiated purchase of Multimedia Inc. for $1.6 billion. The Detroit Free Press, meanwhile, is owned by Knight-Ridder, which has 27 other newspapers and took $170 million in profit for 1994.

Together their business operations are fused in a "Joint Operating Agreement," which pre-empts competition, reduces the work force, presents a single bargaining front, and last year earned profits of a million dollars a week.

It's clear the conglomerates are prepared to expend (pretax) losses of more than $100 million to bust the unions. That expense is already paying off in Philadelphia and Miami, where they are exacting substantial concessions.

In a long front-page article on November 11, The New York Times essentially declared victory for the company. The announcement was premature. This is an important strike. And the wider union movement knows it. The election of activists John Sweeney and Richard Trumka to AFL-CIO leadership has already yielded commitments of funds, staff, and vision. It may be a truly long haul.

THE THEOLOGICAL QUESTION that we have been asking publicly is both simple and quite radical: What is the vocation of a newspaper? All principalities are called to praise God and serve human life. In this case, specifically, that service is to the larger Detroit community by shedding the light of truth, by facilitating communication and public conversation. This, indeed, is discernibly the calling to which the paper is held accountable in the judgment of God.

In the distortion of sin and the Fall, however, that vocation of service becomes confused, pre-empted, or inverted. The newspapers serve first and foremost the corporate chains, absentee owners with no stake in or commitment to the community, conglomerates who imagine the vocation of a newspaper is little more than to clear 15 percent profit. In that demonic confusion, truth or discourse become a matter of indifference, contempt for their workers is one with a contempt for their readers. Frankly, this is a pattern that may be recognized all across the country.

To frame the question as Jesus once did: Were the newspapers made for human beings (the community, readers, workers), or were human beings made for the newspapers? The slogan "Readers before profits" becomes a theological aphorism in this light, no?

Readers United (RU), a group that's been formed virtually out of meetings in our living room, has taken that phrase as its organizational maxim in attempting to be an independent voice of the community within this labor struggle. It was amazing how eager people have been to identify with the project or lend us their names. In a series of public demonstrations-one where we dramatically burned the scab papers, section by section-we have tried to broaden and reframe the issues at the front door of the company, particularly the matter of their role as members and servants of this community. In that light we've rebuked their bad faith bargaining, violence, and contempt for the workers.

While the company daily runs slick commercials attacking the striking workers and their unions, we are organizing toward a citywide forum for early in the year to keep reiterating the fundamental point: What is a newspaper, and how does the community hold it accountable to that calling?

One tactic and handle of accountability we've just begun to reflect upon is the corporation charter. There is, of course, no mention of corporations in the Constitution. They assume the status of "persons" and a legal right to protection of life, liberty, and property under a 1886 court ruling initiated by the railroads. Ironically (to say the least) that ruling was predicated on the 14th Amendment, just then ratified to protect the rights of freed slaves!

Historically, corporation charters were granted by states for limited and fixed terms to be renewed only if the corporation could demonstrate that it was fulfilling its purposes (its vocation). Previously, corporations were prohibited from owning other corporations. Nor could they participate in the electoral process, financially or otherwise. Today every state (except Alaska) retains a charter revocation clause.

We are asking: Is it possible that this could be an avenue for reclaiming community accountability over the conglomerates? As Grace Lee Boggs of the RU steering group puts it, "We need a landmark decision in the mounting conflict between the interests of local communities and absentee corporations which will do for today's movement what Brown vs. Kansas Board of Education did for the civil rights movement."

Readers United has also pushed the vocational question with the unions themselves. Since a newspaper, being part of the community's life, is a substantially different product than steel or cars, the strike itself must be fought in a distinctive way. Asking readers, for example, to boycott the scab papers (even the company acknowledges circulation is down 25 percent) is to leave them in the dark concerning crucial local news-some with urgent political implications. It's not only strategically smart, but part of the unions' responsibility to the community to provide a genuine newspaper, at least for the duration of the strike.

This we have said in letters and leaflets, face-to-face conversations, and news interviews-recirculating a practical proposal made in midsummer. Finally, just before Thanksgiving, The Sunday Journal became a reality. So now? Now we urge broader community editorial participation. We urge the paper to be more than just a strike tactic, but likewise to honor fully the vocation of a newspaper.

This is to say, we are not unmindful that unions are principalities as well, called under the sovereignty of God to serve human life by serving their members' interests, by honoring the worth and dignity of all human labor, and by risking themselves in engagement with the commercial powers. And they too have a responsibility to the community.

However, in the Fall that vocation also gets corrupted. Unions may become more preoccupied with institutional survival and self-preservation than with the human needs of their members. Leadership may serve other interests in pursuit of re-election or be more concerned with guarding the coffer than with justice. Readers United stands with the striking workers, but all the while voicing a call that the unions too be servants of the community.

VIOLENCE REMAINS THE toughest issue. I speak of that initiated by the company, first the structural violence assaulting people's lives and jobs, but more directly violence on the picket line, especially where workers have tried to block vehicles from delivering company papers. Repeatedly, trucks have driven into crowds of strikers, resulting in a number of injuries.

Often as not those trucks are driven by Vance Security, the Pinkerton-like, paramilitary force hired by the company. Vance, which came into its own during the 1989 mine workers strike, advertises itself as specially skilled in documenting (by photo and video evidence) the violence of strikers in order to secure injunctions (the company managed to get one forthwith) and to portray violence as the tactic of protesters.

I have been present when riot-equipped forces charge or posture to provoke a reaction, filming from the roof. Driving a truck into an angry crowd does draw sticks and rocks, equally photogenic. The company's ubiquitous commercials "deplore striker violence" (in order to mask its own). Some of them show burning vehicles that I believe were actually set afire by their own security.

Yet the unions have been slow to embrace disciplined nonviolent action (after the pattern of the United Mine Workers, for example). An ambitious plan of escalating nonviolent action, prepared last August, was cast aside when the injunction came down and the trucks ran the crowds. Moreover, the most creative and militant caucus among the strikers adheres to the slogan "By any means necessary."

One witness of nonviolence has been Bishop Tom Gumbleton, of the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, who has been active from the beginning, heading up statements by religious leaders, speaking publicly and in the media, testifying against company violence on the line, confronting and mediating with the police. In his connection with Readers United, he has met with union leadership to urge the production of a strike paper and to exhort a disciplined nonviolent approach that could include religious-based direct action.

To my mind the question hanging fire remains: Will the unions embrace a thoroughgoing strategy of this sort or will the nonviolent initiative need be seized entirely by groups in the community like Readers United?

BILL WYLIE-KELLERMANN, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a United Methodist pastor teaching at the Whitaker School of Theology in Detroit. He is the author, most recently, of A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (Eerdmans, 1994).

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