The summer is over, school buses are rolling, people are back to work.
And so am I.
Not as a symbol. I am not here because I side with management in this wretched newspaper strike, nor am I here to be a union spy. I did not come back for money, and I plan to give much of what I earn to the people still on strike.
I am here because, after weeks of trying to make peace — endless meetings, talking on the phone until my voice dried up, pushing a proposal that would allow everyone to work while contracts were being negotiated — I have failed. I have been straight-armed by both sides, who seem far too interested in winning this strike when winning is impossible. It’s like looking for healthy people after dropping an atomic bomb.
Enough. I have watched union workers throw bricks at trucks and I have seen trucks plow though a fence and come dangerously close to workers. I have seen our publisher, Neal Shine, a good man, fall deathly ill, while strikers said “good.” And I have seen reporters working in food stores to support their families, while Frank Vega, the head of Detroit Newspapers Inc., reportedly wiggled his butt at picketers.
We are losing our senses here, and our humanity.
Enough. I have been pressured to support each side in this madness, as if I were some kind of flag to wave. Personally I believe both sides are wrong. There should never have been a strike. Newspapers should never be shut down. We are the last line of honest information in a world where information can be used like a blade. We are crucial to the community.
At least I thought we were. The new economy
I return, for now, to try to re-establish that crucial tie with readers. My guess is readers don’t care much about the details of this strike, they just want their newspaper. During the baseball strike, I wrote that the game was precious, it should go on while both sides negotiated. I say that about my business now.
I say this as well: I do not believe in permanent replacement workers, and I will plead with powers here to avoid them forever. And I do not believe in stopping news from being delivered, so I will ask strikers to halt that awful practice.
I am not quitting the union, because I believe in its existence. As such, it may fine me for coming back, my whole salary, I could end up working for no pay. So be it. Right now what matters is doing one good act, one show of faith to the readers. I come back for them, no one else.
People keep asking, “What side are you on?” It’s not that simple. In America in the ’90s, almost no one works for one side, one person or one company anymore. I do radio work for WJR, for example, but WJR was bought by Capital Cities/ABC, and it was just bought by Disney, so I guess I work for Roone Arledge and Michael Eisner, too. Have I ever met these men? No.
The same has happened in newspapers. I trust the people who actually run the Free Press, because they’ve been honest with me for 10 years. But I don’t know the people who run the DNA — some of them, like Vega, come from the Free Press’ arch rival, Gannett — and yet, because our companies are chain- ganged together in a JOA, in a way, I work for them, too.
On the other hand, unions are no better. When I joined this newspaper I was put in the Guild. I had no choice. Now, it turns out, being in one union means being in a lot of unions. On Sunday night, my union leaders said that even if management gave us everything we wanted — everything! — they would not recommend we go back to work until all the other unions got what they wanted. So unionism is a chain gang as well.
In such a world, you can only stake out your own little space, your creativity, your beliefs. This is my space. Writing this column does not mean I support crushing unions — I do not — nor does it mean I agree with the Detroit News employee who stood at one of our union meetings and boasted to his “brothers” that people who crossed the picket line “better hope I’m not driving behind them on a dark highway.”
That man that will never be my brother. Never. A plea for fairness
Strangely enough, just as this strike began, I was reunited with an old college professor I hadn’t seen in 15 years. He is dying of a terrible disease. I began to visit him, every week, in Boston, and we sit now in his quiet study with a summer breeze blowing through the window, and we talk. Last
week, with his death approaching, I asked what he now thought was the most important thing in life. He smiled, and in a choked voice said, “Love each other.”
I wish I could drag all the angry parties in this strike into that room. I cannot. I can only come here, and write this plea: I call upon both sides to stay at the bargaining table until a contract is reached, to put aside their anger and sarcasm, to see peace as a higher cause than money or victory. And to remember that a newspaper is nothing if people stop reading it.
Golda Meir, when she was Israel’s prime minister, insisted on negotiating peace with her enemies face to face, looking them in the eye. When someone suggested that even divorces are arranged without personal contact, she said,
“I’m not interested in a divorce. I’m interested in a marriage.”
We need to be, too. We are behaving like children when we most need to behave like adults. I am here for one reason: To do my job. The negotiators must do theirs. We can only hope the readers forgive us. Then, maybe one day, we can forgive each other.