Organised labour in the US isn't working

Rupert Cornwell in Detroit on a strike that epitomises union ills a strike that stands for the ills afflicting unions nation-wide

It's late Sunday morning outside the Free Press building, and a lone picket leans against a street lamp. "Strike - Unfair Labour Practices" proclaims the sandwich-board draped over her shoulders. She is reading, oblivious to the watching crowd of precisely zero. At the News headquarters close by, the action is a mite livelier: maybe half a dozen protesters working their shift. But only at the gate of the Riverfront print plant which the two papers share is there the hint of serious industrial trouble - emanating from a picket-line manned by burly Teamsters members with enough food and drink to show they are there for the duration. Which may mean for ever.

Strikes fall into two categories. Some are visible and vibrant, fired by an obvious wrong and whose success, sooner or later, is inevitable. And then there's the other kind, concerned not with building the future but preserving the past, and no less surely doomed to ultimate failure.

Such was the British miners' strike of the mid-1980s. And such, it increasingly seems, is the Detroit newspaper strike, now about to lurch into its fifth wretched week. Measured against the great industrial clashes, this is a tiddler, affecting 2,500 workers. For symbolism, however, it takes some beating.

Thirty years ago a strike unfolding here in the citadel of US organised labour, sponsored by the Teamsters and involving a man named Jimmy Hoffa, would have had nerves jangling from Wall Street to the White House. All that is happening today. Yet apart from those whose livelihoods it directly threatens, no one seems to notice the dispute, let alone care.

Every day it becomes more obvious, that, far from strengthening the Teamsters and the Newspaper Guild, the two unions in the forefront of the fray, it threatens only to hasten their downfall.

Detroit - Motown - was where Hoffa made his name, transforming the upstart Teamsters Local 299 into a 15,000-member behemoth, before becoming the union's president and turning it into the toughest (and most corrupt) labour organisation in the US. On 30 July 1975 he climbed into a red Lincoln Mercury in the car park of a restaurant in an affluent suburb and was never seen again. Seven years later he was declared legally dead, the presumed though never proven victim of the New Jersey Mob.

The other day Jimmy Hoffa Jr, a Teamster lawyer who is manoeuvring to win his father's old job, spoke at a service to mark the 20th anniversary of a disappearance that is part of American criminal legend. For his oration he adapted lines from the folk ballad Joe Hill. "Jimmy Hoffa never died ... Where working men are out on strike, Jimmy Hoffa is at their side." Mr Hoffa Jr is in the thick of the newspaper strike but this is 1995, not 1955, and even gritty, blue-collar Detroit is being dragged into the post-industrial world. What was intended as a call to arms sounded like a lament for a vanished age.

To a British reporter, it is a rerun of the Death of Fleet Street, this time in Michigan. Separate editorially, the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press are run as a joint business operation by their respective owners, the Gannett and Knight-Ridder groups. The papers want to convert the independent carriers who distribute them into agents, no longer controlled by Teamster district managers making up to $80,000 (pounds 50,000) a year. On 13 July the union struck at the paper, joined by journalists in their own dispute over merit pay awards, and by four other unions.

Picketing has turned violent on occasion: car windows have been broken at the Riverfront plant, drivers have been intimidated and the tyre- shredding ''starnail'' has entered local language. Each morning ''scab'' journalists are whisked into the editorial buildings in smoke-windowed vans, running a gauntlet of abuse.

But every day they and non-union managers get a joint edition of the papers out - each day a little better, a little fatter and - most important - a little better distributed. Maybe management claims that they are up to 90 per cent of the pre-strike combined circulation of 900,000 copies are exaggerated; maybe home delivery, the backbone of US newspaper sales, is only two- thirds of pre-strike levels. But advertising is returning and subscription cancellations have dropped. And with each edition that appears, the knife of doubt must twist a little deeper in a striker's soul. Perhaps, as management is starting to hint, they are superfluous.

Slowly editorial staff are drifting back, leaving the Newspaper Guild as they do so. Thus is perishing the closed shop which operated at the Free Press - not exactly what the Guild intended.

And then there is the darkest fear of all: that, emboldened by the success of their forced experiment, Knight-Ridder and Gannett will merge the papers editorially, eliminating hundreds of jobs and thinning further the ranks of big US cities with competing daily papers. These are tough times for US newspapers. This year alone, hard-nosed owners have pulled the plug on the Baltimore Evening Sun, the Houston Post and, most recently, New York Newsday. Will the News or the Free Press be next?

As for the Teamsters and the entire labour movement here, the strike is another small step towards irrelevance. A national strike by Teamster truckdrivers last year flopped. Union membership has dropped to 15 cent of the total workforce, compared to almost 30 per cent in Hoffa's heyday.

So strong was the discontent that Lane Kirkland, the courtly but invisible head of the AFL-CIO, has been forced to resign, leaving America's main union confederation this autumn facing its first contested leadership election in half a century.

So enfeebled is the movement that three of the largest unions swallowed their pride last month and announced plans to merge. Spokesmen for the United Autoworkers, the United Steelworkers and the Machinists and Aerospace Workers claim the move will give them huge new clout. Once though, the UAW, along with the Teamsters the pillar of organised labour in Detroit, would never have countenanced such indignity. But having seen its membership halve in 15 years, it had little choice.

The Teamsters reckoned they had little choice but to strike. But in the long run their cause looks unwinnable. Even in Detroit the world is changing. "They say this is a union town," said a Free Press journalist, contemplating the grim expanses of the city. "But you have to wonder, what have the unions done for modern Detroit?''

News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
News
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
newsTV star had been reported missing
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 5 Primary Teaching positionRands...

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone