Skip to Navigation

The Future of Collective Bargaining: An Interview with Chris Rhomberg

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
April 30, 2012

Detroit strikeChris Rhomberg is the author of The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor, a riveting analysis of the 1995 Detroit newspaper strike. An associate professor of sociology at Fordham University, Rhomberg studies issues of race, labor, and urban politics in American political development.

Q: By 1995, when the Detroit strike began, the erosion of collective bargaining rights was already firmly established. What drew you to this newspaper strike as opposed to the many other wrenching labor disputes of the 1980s and early 1990s? What did you hope to learn from Detroit?

A: The rise of the current anti-union regime began in the 1980s, but my argument is that such macro-institutional changes do not occur neatly in all places all at once. In the 1990s it was not necessarily clear where things would go next. By that time unions had adopted counter-tactics of community mobilization and striking against unfair labor practices in order to gain some protec-tion against permanent replacement. The National Labor Relations Board became more favorable to unions, under the administration of President Bill Clinton. The labor movement as a whole had begun a progressive revival, symbolized in the October 1995 election of Service Employees International Union president John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO.

As one of the largest and longest strikes of the past several decades, the Detroit newspaper strike captured the intersection of forces at that moment in a unique way. I describe it as a "signal juncture," an exceptional, landmark case that reveals not only how far the anti-union regime had developed to that point but also the ongoing tensions and conflicts within the regime, and possible sources of change.

Q: You argue that the disagreement between the newspaper unions and management was not just about wages and benefits. Instead, it became a "high-risk confrontation" in which the very existence of collective bargaining was at stake. Give us a short primer on what each side wanted going into negotiations in 1995.

A: The unions had made concessions in previous contracts and wanted to catch up on base pay, but they knew that they would have to be flexible on job reductions. The newspapers had lost money in the 1980s and early ‘90s but appeared to have turned the corner and had made a profit of $55 million in 1994. Rather than reward employees for past sacrifices, however, the papers continued to seek drastic changes in their operations. Most importantly, within management’s proposals were provisions that would either bypass the union and erode the scope for collective bargaining or replace union jobs with lower-paid, non-union labor. Management’s nominal wage offer in 1995 was not all that bad, but the unions saw a deeper threat to their organizational survival.

Q: The corporate anti-union playbook in this case (and others) seemed to involve three steps: hard bargaining, impasse and implementation. Walk us through each step – why would management want a ‘declaration of impasse’? And how widespread was the use of replacement workers before the Detroit strike?

A: If there is a valid declaration of impasse in bargaining, the law allows the employer to unilaterally impose terms and conditions from its final offer. The union then has to choose: either accept the terms or strike for something better. It’s important to recall that under the New Deal system strikes served an essential function, as a last resort to push the two sides to compromise in negotiations. The Supreme Court ruled in 1937 that employers could hire permanent replacements, but their use did not become more common until after President Ronald Reagan fired and replaced the federal air traffic controllers in 1981.

As the threat of permanent replacement became more widespread in the 1980s, the incentives to reach agreement under the law were reversed. The employer could now open with a set of maximal demands that were often virtually suicidal for the union and to present them, in effect, as a final offer. If the union chose to strike, the strikers could be permanently replaced. If it did not, the declaration of impasse would allow the employer to impose its desired terms unilaterally.

Q: The strike lasted more than five years and inflicted heavy monetary losses on the newspapers – about $92 million in the first six months alone. Why didn’t the corporation step back and seek resolution earlier? Why do you think the corporate negotiators wanted to ditch the New Deal model of bargaining?

A: I don’t think the parent corporations (Gannett and Knight-Ridder) expected to face the kind of resistance they got in the strike, or to lose as much money as they did. However, I think the Gannett negotiators, especially, were determined to get what they wanted whatever it took. Again, the law favored them and they expected to win, not at the NLRB but on appeal in the federal courts. As the two largest newspaper chains in the nation, they had the resources to absorb the losses in Detroit and await the outcome of the extended litigation. Their actions were fully supported by Wall Street; throughout the strike, the stock prices of the companies were never seriously affected.

In my interviews for the book, I kept asking the newspaper executives if they ever said, “Hey, we’re losing a ton of money on this strike, maybe we should just cut a deal and get out.” But that was not how they saw it. I think they had absorbed the norms and logic of the anti-union regime, in which managers are accountable only to stockowners and do not believe they should seriously have to negotiate with unions, the community, or the government. The decline of unionization has contributed directly to the rise of economic inequality in the U.S. over the last several decades. As I argue in this book, it also represents a significant de-democratization of our system of workplace governance.

Q: You argue that in the face of the company’s aggressive tactics, unions exercised two options: first, they mobilized community support, and second, they pursued an ‘unfair labor practice’ case. Do you think these extra measures are enough to help unions’ positions in the post-New Deal era? What institutional or statutory changes should be pursued to correct the imbalance if one side has no intention of bargaining in good faith?

A: More than any particular tactic, I think for unions the key is that the conflict now extends across multiple arenas and requires comprehensive planning. Large corporations have more resources to resist workers in local workplaces and communities, but they often depend on global supply or distribution chains with strategic pressure points. Unions have to reach out to a larger public, but that includes building alliances with groups that have not always had access to traditional unionization, and mobilizing political support. Technical or economic issues of bargaining need to be understood in broader terms of cultural standards of decency and democratic rights.

In our public policy, we have reverted to a pre-New Deal era of “judicial repression.” Court decisions and NLRB case precedents have radically reduced workers’ rights to bargain and act collectively, subverting the original purpose of the National Labor Relations Act. Restoring the "table" means limiting practices of impasse and unilateral imposition, the permanent replacement of strikers, and other barriers to contractual settlement. Widening the spaces for dialogue and medi-ation among employers, unions, and community actors could also encourage flexibility and innovation in negotiations between workers and management. Ultimately, the integrity of the bar-gaining process rests on a real right to strike. Nowadays there are simply not enough strikes in this country, and we need to restore this once established, but no longer protected, civil right.