Gov. Rick Snyder visited the Free Press Friday to meet with the paper’s editorial board.
The visit comes three days after Snyder signed right-work-work legislation and five days after the Free Press published an editorial about Snyder that was both eloquent and blistering.
The piece accused Snyder of betraying voters for his sudden about-face on right-to-work and for jamming it through the legislature. And it used words like “grotesquely disingenuous” and “dishonest” to characterize Snyder’s excuses for backing the legislation that he always had said was too divisive for Michigan and not on his agenda.
“Like the failed labor initiative it seeks to avenge, Snyder's right-to-work legislation is an attempt to institutionalize Republicans' current political advantage,” the editorial said. “Everything else is window dressing, and most of these diversionary talking points are demonstrably false.”
The editorial concluded: “What reasonable person now believes that Snyder has the will or the wherewithal to deliver Michigan, or even his own party, from the failed politics of division?”
It must have been interesting when Snyder sat down with the people who wrote and authorized that bit of opinion. I hope the governor asked one question: “Isn’t this a right-to-work place?”
The answer is yes.
Is it grotesquely disingenuous, simply disingenuous, hypocritical or just plain curious that the paper that excoriated the governor for seeking to give Michigan workers the freedom to choose whether to join a union gives its own employees the right to choose whether to join a union? It has been that way since the conclusion of the newspaper strike in 1997.
(The Detroit News is also an open shop, but its editorial page loves right-to-work.)
In fact, the Free Press and News are demonstration labs for what Michigan workplaces will become over the coming years as unions’ current contracts expire and closed shops become open shops under the new right-to-work law.
The Newspaper Guild of Detroit has represented Free Press employees since the 1930s, when the union revolution spread across the city with strikes and sit-ins. The paper was a closed shop until the strike, meaning joining the Guild was a condition of employment. It seemed to work pretty well.
I was a Guild member and union supporter during the years I worked at the Free Press. I left the paper in 2009. When the Free Press operated as a closed shop, there was pretty much a state of détente between the union and the company. Grievances were rare, benefits were good and employees got overtime when they worked extra hours.
I witnessed the transition from closed shop to open shop. Today, about 80 percent of the employees eligible to join the union belong to the Guild, but the Guild bargains for everyone, and even goes to bat for non-union employees who get in trouble with the company for whatever reason. Those incidents often involve heavy legal fees and huge time commitments for the Guild’s tiny staff. In some cases, the Guild has saved non-union employees from being terminated.
Sometimes the non-union employees who receive the Guild’s help then sign a union card. But, remarkably, that does not happen in every case. Due to the presence of the free riders, there can be tension, mostly unspoken, between Guild members and non-Guild members at the paper.
The non-union employees at the Free Press don’t even pay a so-called “agency fee,” which is an administrative charge the law allows unions to collect from employees who elect not to become a union member.
Two years ago, during contract negotiations, the Guild sought to have the company agree to allow the union to start collecting the fee. The Guild even brought UAW President Bob King to the table, to both argue for the change and to tell the Gannett Company officials that if the fee were imposed, the UAW would promote the Free Press and News to its members and other unions.
“We could not get Gannett to budge,” Lou Mleczko, president of the Detroit Newspaper Guild, told me. “They absolutely refused to engage on this.”
The people who run the Free Press today had nothing to do with the change from a closed shop to an open shop. During the strike, Gannett owned the News and the Free Press was part of the Knight Ridder chain. Gannett bought the Free Press in 2005.
Gannett has a reputation for being anti-labor. It has 82 daily newspapers in the Unites States; just 11 percent of its employees are represented by unions. I served on the Free Press bargaining team after the strike and saw the hostility of the negotiator from Gannett headquarters; he had no respect for collective bargaining and treated everyone from the unions with disdain.
I hope no one at the Free Press gets in trouble with Gannett headquarters for standing up so strongly for unions:
“Snyder has long acknowledged that steamrolling right-to-work legislation through the Legislature would have enduring negative consequences for productive collaboration between workers and employers,” the editorial said. “His decision to embrace such legislation now destroys, in an eye blink, the trusting relationship he and his business allies have struggled to establish.
“It also yokes a governor who once aspired to be seen as a new kind of Republican with the most ideological, backward-looking elements of that party -- the very people whose exclusionary vision of the country's future was rejected by voters in last month's election.”
Solidarity Forever, Free Press. Keep standing up for workers.
It’s too bad Gannett can’t practice what one of its biggest newspapers preaches.