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In today's world of corporate newspapers, unions struggle to gain back the leverage they once had.
Who saw this one coming?
Not even a month before the five and a half-year-old Detroit newspaper strike ended last December, bringing to an official close the historically bitter dispute that exacted heavy casualties from unions and the newspapers, about 1,000 Newspaper Guild members in Seattle struck the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Times.
By Christmas, the strike took on some of the siege-like characteristics of Detroit. History, from all appearances, was poised to repeat itself. The papers kept on publishing, uninterrupted. Replacement workers were hired. Growing numbers of union members crossed the picket lines. Little progress was made at the negotiating table.
Then, at the urging of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, settlement talks began in Washington, D.C., and the strike ended in early January, seven weeks after it started. Not surprisingly, neither the union nor the newspapers' management was in a position to legitimately claim victory. The strike was over, but the economic damage was done.
"Every time there's a newspaper strike, someone always says, 'Well, that'll be the last newspaper strike,"' said Lou Mleczko, president of Newspaper Guild Local 22 in Detroit. "And then there's always another one."
One can't help but wonder why that is, given the mutual destruction that often occurs from newspaper strikes -- lost wages, lost revenue, lost circulation and the aftertaste of ill will in the community. But is there any reason for unions to be encouraged from the 49-day Seattle strike, which ended with workers accepting a pay package they originally rejected and management pledging to eliminate 160 jobs?
At the same time, should newspaper owners be emboldened to take a hard line against union demands, especially after Knight Ridder Inc., which owns a 49.5 percent stake in the Seattle Times, acknowledged losing "millions" of dollars and suffering earnings losses as a result of the strike?
Guild negotiations are scheduled this year in Boston, Chicago and other cities. No strike authorizations have been approved, and there are no reasons to expect -- right now -- that another strike is in the works. One of the legacies of the Detroit strike was the approval of long-term contracts at papers such as The Cleveland (Ohio) Plain Dealer, where in 1996 …