Violence and the Newspaper Strike
— Thomas Bernick
AS A NEWSPAPER worker, I always find it disturbing when someone says, "I kind of support you guys, but I'm against all that violence." My response is, "How do you feel about the violent attacks directed at the union members?" At this point I am usually greeted with a blank, uncomprehending stare.
Throughout the Detroit newspaper strike and subsequent lockout, the greatest success of the "News" and "Free Press" management has been its ability to prevent such information from reaching the public and to discredit it unjustly when it does. It is a task often simplified by a tendency among some people to dismiss accusations of criminal wrongdoing against the dailies as mere union rhetoric.
CEO Frank Vega's cavalier reply to charges that his company and its hired security guards have instigated much of the violence exploits these doubts. "Do you know how ludicrous that sounds?" he indignantly protests. "That is good old union propaganda" ("News", 16 November 1995).
But there have been arrests, convictions, and lawsuits that speak for themselves. Despite company denials, numerous attacks on union members and their supporters have taken place during the past twenty-one months. They are serious, widespread, and a continuing disgrace.
It is not known whether the company directly ordered any of these assaults, but there is little doubt, considering the magnitude of the problem, that those who commit them have its tacit approval.
During the two months before the strike began, Detroit Newspapers Inc., business agent of the "News" and "Free Press," hired about 1000 Huffmaster and Vance International paramilitary security guards, who have a wide reputation for strike-breaking activities involving intimidation, vandalism, and physical attacks on picketers.
Considered kindred spirits by many police officers, they are only mildly deterred by threats of arrest and prosecution. Some of their beatings have been administered in full view of the police, such as the vicious attack with a board on Vito Sciuto in October of 1995 at the Clayton Street distribution center (see the "Detroit Sunday Journal," 21 January 1996).
Most incidents at picket sites, however, are sudden, unseen attacks meant to injure quickly or to provoke a confrontation that can be blamed on union members. The list below records several instances of people who were assaulted, then arrested when they retaliated.
But this is not their preferred mode of attack. Essentially cowards, the guards would rather confront people away from potential witnesses, catching them alone near picket sites or following them as they drive home.
Crystal Miller, a union supporter, was one of the victims of this type of attack. Two Vance guards in a van and two female accomplices in a car followed her in Roseville in August of 1995. In broad daylight she was run off the road and then beaten by the women as the guards looked on. She sustained a cut lip, black eye, and other facial bruises. Fortunately, witnesses came forward, and arrests were made. Miller has filed civil lawsuits against Vance International and the DN.
Others have also been attacked and injured on local highways. Mike Hein, Joe and Jim Ritchie, and Steve Munson were all run off roads at high rates of speed by guards, and all are lucky to be alive. The Huffmaster guard who went after Munson has been convicted and jailed for his crime.
Replacement workers have been equally dangerous to union members. Their actions, like those of security guards, are often ignored or condoned by the police.
By far the most serious incident involved James Mikonczyk of Teamsters Local 2040. Mikonczyk was run down by a newspaper delivery truck at the Clayton Street distribution center on 3 October 1995. Detroit police witnessed the attack, but refused to pursue the driver, who sped away. Nor would they call for medical assistance. Mikonczyk lay in the driveway for about forty-five minutes with broken bones in his leg, hip, and elbow while DN vehicles continued to exit the facility.
The reason for the appalling police indifference became clear only later, when it was discovered that the driver was one of their own, a former cop suspended for cocaine abuse. He has never been charged with a crime or even issued a traffic ticket.
DN officials refused to accept any responsibility for this attack. They insisted that their vehicle was going slowly and that the fault lay with Mikonczyk ("Free Press," 4 October 1995). When asked about the incident on WDET radio, DN vice president Susie Elwood lamely explained that it was "almost unavoidable." Mikonczyk, she insisted, had "jumped" in front of the loaded truck. She did not explain, however, why a "slowly-moving" truck didn't simply stop, instead of running him over with both the front and rear tires and then leaving the scene.
Mikonczyk has recently reached an out-of-court settlement with the DN for an undisclosed amount of money. Apparently the company decided that perhaps he didn't "jump" in front of that truck after all.
The Role of the Police
Public skepticism about attacks on union members is even greater when the police are accused. Americans who have grown up with respect for the law and confidence in their police departments often insist that if strikers were beaten, they must have done something wrong. Yet time after time union members and their supporters have been beaten, arrested, and then simply released. Why?
The DN has given large amounts of money to several cities for strike-related expenses such as police overtime pay. It has, in effect, bought the loyalties of those cities. Sterling Heights, for example, received over $1.3 million, beginning with secret payments for riot gear six months before the DN provoked the strike. Those who think cities will remain neutral when such huge amounts of cash are involved are simply being na‹ve.
One must also weigh the effect of the DNs unspoken threat to cut off those funds if it is not satisfied with the services it has purchased, thereby leaving its clients with no money, but the same expenses.
Of course, mayors, police chiefs, and city managers reject the arguments of those who voice such suspicions, but consider the facts. Some Sterling Heights police have been seen moonlighting as body guards for "Free Press" publisher Heath Meriwether, hardly the actions of neutral third parties.
Moreover, claims of neutrality cannot be reconciled with the viciousness of some of the unprovoked attacks on union members and their supporters who were simply exercising their First Amendment rights. Instances of sadistic cruelty, especially in Sterling heights, are also shamefully common. Frank Brabenec, Dennis Conroy, Harry Collins, and Ben Solomon, included on the list below, represent some of the more disturbing examples of this problem. Solomon's case is unusual only in its severity.
On 5 September, 1995 a Sterling Heights police officer attacked Solomon at the North Plant, dragging him off by his hair to a waiting group of his colleagues. Solomon was beaten, choked, and handcuffed face down on the ground. As he lay helpless, one of the officers then raised his head by the hair and pepper sprayed him while holding the canister only inches from his face.
Taken to the police station, Solomon was forced to remain in handcuffs for several hours despite serious knee and shoulder injuries sustained in the beating. The next morning, he was released without being charged and sought treatment at a local hospital.
In the two weeks preceding his arrest, Solomon picketed at the North Plant on a daily basis. Those familiar with the scene during that period know there were video cameras everywhere. The police had them, security guards had them, and the news media had them. Yet no one had photographic evidence that he did anything wrong. The criminal attack that he endured was simply the result of an undisciplined, frustrated group of police determined to punish someone/anyone for the situation forced on them by the DNs Unfair Labor Practices strike.
The List Reveals Who's Been Violent
The accompanying list does not include all of those who have been injured. Many attacks have gone unreported. Nor does it reflect the many incidents that only good fortune prevented from becoming tragedies. For example, Sterling Heights police discovered a loaded crossbow in the car of a scab carrier who was confronting picketers at the North Plant on 8 October 1995. And in July of 1995 police confiscated about twenty-five illegal clubs and pepper spray from Huffmaster guards at the same location.
There have been problems in other cities as well. Homemade explosives were found by Warren police in the hotels where scabs were staying in September of 1995. To Teamster Charles Rodebaugh, whose house was the target of a scab bottle bomb attack that resulted in a conviction, the significance of this discovery is clear.
Also in September of 1995 strikers at the Brighton distribution center reported that Vance guards were shooting out their car windows with slingshots. Stephen Olter and Tom Murphy, who were struck by flying metal nuts at the North Plant, can attest that the guards in Sterling Heights using the same weapon were more interested in hurting people than causing damage.
As the list shows, at least sixteen others besides James Mikonczyk have been deliberately hit by vehicles. But there have also been numerous unsuccessful attempts by DN employees to run people over by driving up on sidewalks or swerving towards them in driveways. In one such incident at the "News" building on 30 September 1996, a scab was arrested for jumping the curb twice in pursuit of scattering picketers.
And then there were the confrontations in Sterling Heights on 26 May 1996, and in Detroit on 10 August 1996, during which scabs threatened picketers with guns. In both cases the identity of the scab was known, but police refused to make an arrest.
The news media have, for the most part, ignored attacks on newspaper workers, apparently out of their dislike for unions, disinterest, or fear of the vast powers of Gannett and Knight-Ridder, the parent companies of the Detroit dailies. Or perhaps it's because such stories do not conform to the violent-striker stereotype that lends itself so well to the mindless chatter that passes for radio and TV newscasts in Detroit.
If, however, they have not pursued these stories out of simple laziness, this list will facilitate the task. All of the cases that resulted in legal action can be easily verified.
Clearly, violence in the Detroit newspaper labor dispute is a major and persistent problem. This is quite obvious. The greater issue, however, is the gravity and source of the most serious crimes.
To those who still allow their anti-union biases and their exposure to DN misinformation to cloud their perception of reality, I would pose the following question: If the DN and its supporters are really the victimized peace-loving martyrs that they pretend to be, why are the union members the ones who always end up in the hospital?
Assaulted Union Members and Their Supporters (compiled by Thomas Bernick)
- Anderson, Ray. Pressman. Hit by a car driven by a scab from Ohio at the North Plant. Sustained an arm cut and bruises. Charges filed.
- Antior, Brian. Teamster. While walking to his car near the North Plant, he was attacked by Sterling Heights police and struck several times in the legs with batons. Police at the station had tape over their badges to conceal their identities. The next morning Antior was released without being charged.
- Bechler, Dwight. Mailer. Punched in the face by a scab carrier from Minnesota at the Lincoln Park distribution center. Police refused to investigate.
- Boman, Barbara. Union supporter. Punched and knocked to the ground by a scab carrier in Warren.
- Brabenec, Frank. Pressman. Struck in the head with a baton and then beaten by Sterling Heights police at the North Plant. Kicked while on the ground by off-duty plainclothes police lieutenant Jack Severance. Brabenac was arrested on a trumped-up charge of resisting and obstructing a police officer.
- Brooks, Scott. Union Supporter. Beaten with clubs and knocked unconscious by several Vance guards in full riot gear at the Harper Woods distribution center. Sustained multiple scrapes and bruises, a severely scratched cornea, and an eight-stitch cut on his ear.
- Brown, Dwayne. Teamster. Attacked by job applicants at the "News building. Sustained a seven-stitch head wound and minor bruises. Brown was arrested and released.
- Cangemi, Phil. Mailer. Pepper sprayed by Sterling Heights police at the North Plant while he was videotaping picketers to prevent him from filming an impending police assault on the crowd.
- Castine, John. Guild. Punched by DN guard Neal Stephens behind the "Free Press building. Stephens pled no contest and was sentenced to one years probation and $250 in fines and court costs. Lawsuit pending.
- Collins, Harry. Printer. Pepper sprayed by Sterling Heights police at the North Plant. While returning to his car, he was arrested and thrown into a paddy wagon with several other people. To torment their captives on that hot summer night, the police turned the heater on high for about forty minutes, causing some to become violently ill. All charges against Collins were dismissed.
- Conroy, Dennis. Teamster. While walking to his car near the North Plant, he was attacked and beaten with batons by Sterling Heights police. Sustained broken teeth and serious neck, shoulder, foot, and hand injuries. At the station, police with tape covering their badges to conceal their identities threatened to beat him again and to break his fingers. Conroy was later released without being charged.
- Cook, David. Mailer. Scab carrier vandalized his house and tried to run him over while he was walking in his Livonia neighborhood, forcing him to dive to the ground. Police refused to make an arrest.
- Cook, Rebecca. Guild. Two incidents. (1) A striking photographer, Cook had her camera shoved into her face by "News movie critic Susan Stark. Lawsuit pending. (2) Struck in the back by a Vance guard at the "News building. Cook was found not guilty of a trumped-up charge of attacking the guard.
- Cox, Chuck. Teamster. Clubbed in the shoulder and knocked to the ground by a Vance guard near the Northline Depot in Southgate.
- Craft, John. Teamster. Punched and knocked into a cement wall while picketing a scab newspaper hawker in Southfield. Sustained a severe shoulder injury.
- DeChane, Fran. Printer. Nudged onto the hood of a car driven by a Vance guard, who then drove off with her on the hood for six to eight blocks through the streets of Detroit. The guards then stopped, got out, and threw her to the ground. Sustained bruises and hand cuts. The DN fired DeChane, using the incident as a pretext. Lawsuit pending.
- Dooha, Herman. Union supporter. Pushed by a Detroit police officer at the Clayton Street distribution center.
- Dumouchelle, Larry. Pressman. Sustained a twelve-stitch head wound when clubbed by a Vance guard at the Northline Depot in Southgate. Filed a police report, but no arrest was made.
- Edwards, Roger. Teamster. Followed and beaten by two Vance guards near the Brighton distribution center. Filed a police report, but the prosecutor refused to act.
- Gadomski, Jean. Guild. Two incidents. (1) Knocked unconscious by a Vance guard who swung open a steel door at the "News building, shoving her backwards onto the cement. Detroit police refused to make an arrest. (2) Pushed and elbowed in the ribs by a scab at the "News building.
- Gratton, Tom. Teamster. Hit by a van driven by a scab from Florida at the Harper Woods distribution center. Filed a police report, but no arrest was made.
- Gravilla, Bud. Pressman. Hit twice at the North Plant by a car driven by a scab, a DN vice president's son. Police refused to issue a warrant.
- Gutowski, John. Teamster. Two incidents. (1) Hit by a car driven by a scab at the Southfield and I-96 distribution center. Sustained scrapes and bruises. Filed a police report, but no action was taken. (2) Beaten with batons and riot shields by several Sterling Heights police at the North Plant as he was returning to his car. Sustained neck and back injuries. Police would not drop trumped-up charges against him even though he passed a lie detector test.
- Harris, Kenny. Teamster. Attacked by job applicants at the "News building. Sustained a head cut and cracked ribs. Harris was arrested and released.
- Hein, Mike. Teamster. Two incidents. (1) Beaten and clubbed by Sterling Heights police at the North Plant. Sustained fractured wrist and multiple bruises. (2) Rammed and run off of Merriman Road by Vance guards. Sustained a shattered kneecap. His car was totaled.
- Ingalls, Bob. Union supporter. Two incidents. (1) A Detroit police officer knocked his hat off at the Clayton Street distribution center, then struck him on the head with a baton when he tried to pick it up. Police deny it happened. (2) Punched by a Vance guard at the" News building.
- Janisch, Michael. Mailer. Followed by two Vance guards in Roseville. Attacked at a stoplight. Sustained a head cut.
- Joslin, John. Union supporter. Two incidents. (1) Clubbed into unconsciousness and dragged across Mound Road by Sterling Heights police at the North Plant. Sustained severe head cuts. (2) Punched by a scab near the "News building. Sustained bruises and a black eye.
- Karpinski, Carol. Wife of a Teamster. While leafleting at advertiser Art Vans in Novi, she was hit by a car driven by the store manager. Sustained a ligament injury in her leg. Filed a complaint, but the prosecutor refused to act.
- Kenneweg, Henry. Teamster. Pepper sprayed from a moving car by a scab district manager at the Brighton distribution center. Police refused to act.
- Kummer, Dennis. Pressman. Hit by a car driven by a scab at the North Plant. Sustained a knee injury. When the scab tried to hit him again on another occasion, police issued a $75 traffic ticket.
- Kummer, Don. Guild. Struck in the chest with a baton by Detroit police officer at the Clayton Street distribution center.
- Langford, Tony. Pressman. Hit by a car driven by a scab at the North Plant. Sustained a bruised knee. Filed a police report, but no action was taken.
- Lastomirsky, Rick. Teamster. A scab at the Centerline distribution center drove her van onto his foot and refused to move it. Sustained fractured foot bones. An off-duty Centerline cop who was moonlighting as a DN guard then knocked him down, hyperextending his ankle. Filed a police report, but no action was taken.
- Lee, John. Teamster. Pepper sprayed from a moving car by a scab district manager at the Brighton distribution center. Police refused to act.
- Luce, Greg. Mailer. Hit by a car driven by a scab at the North Plant. Sustained a leg injury.
- Martelle, Scott. Guild. Hit by a car driven by a scab at the "News building. Filed a police report, but no action was taken.
- Middleton, Ken. Pressman. Struck in the face with a riot shield by a Sterling Heights police officer at the North Plant. Sustained a six-stitch cut on his lip and had three teeth knocked out. Police detained the ambulance for about an hour before they would allow it to take him to the hospital. Lawsuit pending.
- Mikonczyk, Jim. Mailer. Run over by scab hit-and-run driver at the Clayton Street distribution center. Sustained multiple broken bones. Witnessed by Detroit police, who refused to make an arrest. The DN has agreed to an out of court settlement of his lawsuit.
- Miller, Crystal. Union supporter. Followed in Roseville by two Vance guards in a van and two female accomplices in a car. Run off the road and beaten by the women as the guards looked on. Arrests were made based on the testimony of witnesses. Civil lawsuits pending against Vance International and the DN.
- Moore, Joe. Teamster. Hit by a car driven by a scab at the Lincoln Park distribution center. Sustained serious closed-head injuries that still cause him headaches, dizzy spells, and double vision. A month later he was fired on a trumped-up charge that he engaged in picket line violence the day before he was hit.
- Munson, Steve. Mailer. Rammed and run off of I-75 in Troy by a Huffmaster guard. Sustained neck injuries. The guard was convicted and jailed. Lawsuit pending.
- Murphy, Tom. Pressman. Struck in the neck with a metal nut launched from a slingshot by a Vance guard at the North Plant.
- Naumoff, Mark. Teamster. Injured when a DN truck driver rammed and flattened a locked gate at the North Plant, pinning him to the ground. Sustained leg, back, and chest injuries.
- Novock, Tom. Pressman. Hit by a van entering the Riverfront Plant. Sustained a knee injury.
- Olter, Stephen. Pressman. Two incidents. (1) Struck with a baton by a Sterling Heights police officer at the North Plant. Sustained a hand injury. (2) Struck in the ankle with a metal nut launched from a slingshot by a Vance guard. Filed a complaint with Sterling Heights police. No arrest was made.
- Ortiz, Chris. Union supporter. Struck in the back and side with a riot shield by a Vance guard at the Clayton Street distribution center. Sustained scrapes and bruises.
- Owen, Sam. Teamster. Hit by a car driven by a scab at the Southfield and I-96 distribution center. Sustained at knee injury and a ruptured spinal disc that required surgery. Police witnessed the attack, but did not file an accident report or issue a traffic ticket.
- Pal, Michael. Teamster. Pal, his wife, and son were detained at gun point while driving in Fraser and, about fifteen minutes later, in Sterling Heights because of a "confidential anonymous tip" that they had automatic weapons. In Sterling Heights they were roughed up and forced to lie face down on the ground. Lawsuit pending.
- Ritchie, Jim. Mailer. Hit by a truck driven by a scab at the North Plant. Sustained a neck injury.
- Ritchie, Joe. Mailer. Ritchie and his brother Jim were rammed and run off of I-75 into a cement wall by Vance guards. When the guards returned to the North Plant, Sterling Heights police refused to make an arrest even though paint from Ritchie's truck was seen on the damaged front end off the guards car.
- Rodebaugh, Charles. Teamster. Two scab carriers were convicted of detonating a bottle bomb on Rodebaugh's porch in Ferndale.
- Rodriguez, Sam. Teamster. Hit by a car driven by a scab at the Flint distribution center. Sustained scrapes, bruises, and a back injury. The scab was convicted of felonious assault.
- Sciuto, Vito. Mailer. Struck repeatedly with a board by a Vance guard at the Clayton Street distribution center. Sustained shattered facial bones and brain damage. Witnessed by police, who refused to make an arrest. His injuries have thus far required two operations. Lawsuit pending.
- Solomon, Ben. Mailer. Beaten and arrested by six or seven Sterling Heights police officers. Police pepper sprayed his eyes after he was handcuffed. Sustained serious knee and shoulder injuries. Released without being charged. Class action civil lawsuit pending.
- St. Louis, Jim. Mailer. St. Louis and union supporter Bill Freitas were stalked by Oxford police in Troy and threatened with a shotgun.
- Thomas, Jim. Teamster. Hit by a car driven by a scab carrier at the Lawrence Street distribution center in Detroit. Sustained wrist, ankle, and shoulder injuries. Two operations were required to repair his shoulder. Filed a report, but police would not make an arrest or even issue a traffic ticket. Lawsuit pending.
- Tonelli, Dino. Mailer. Struck in the face with a riot shield by a Vance guard at the Clayton Street distribution center. Sustained an eighteen-stitch face cut.
- Trudell, Al. Printer. Attacked from behind by Detroit police or Vance guards at the Clayton Street distribution center and thrown to the ground. Sustained a four-stitch cut on his elbow.
- Villareal, Art. Teamster. Attacked by a scab carrier at the Lincoln Park distribution center. Sustained a bump on the head and bruises.
- Weston, Frank. Printer. Attacked by Vance guards at the Clayton Street distribution center. Sustained a hand cut from a riot shield and a head wound from being struck with a baton.
Thomas Bernick is a locked-out member of Teamsters Local 2040. He currently works in the advertising department at the "Detroit Sunday Journal".
ATC 68, May-June 1997