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?''

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