Contract talks between the UAW and the U.S. automakers officially kicked off this week with three grip and grin handshakes-across-the-table photo ops before the two sides retreat to the process of collective arguing..er..bargaining. The real fun, however, doesn’t really start until the contracts are about to expire on Sept. 14th.
The first contract talks I ever covered were in 1990. As the contract expiration neared and talks revved up, my CNN crew and I, along with several dozen other journalists camped out in the press room at the old General Motors headquarters on Second Avenue in Detroit where we expected to stay until the white smoke, or some other signal let us know the two sides wore each other down and agreed to a new pact.
This was all new to me, as I’d only been covering the auto beat since being transferred to Detroit from Atlanta the year before. I quickly learned an important thing about covering the talks–GM had a kickass catering department. Knowing we would be bored stiff cooling our heels for hours on end waiting for an agreement, or breakdown, the kind folks at GM kept us fed..and fed..and fed. Every few hours more food would arrive–chicken, steak, snacks and of course, the most popular item, Dove Bars. Oh yes…all the Dove Bars you could lick, slurp or swallow. The only thing never served up–was news.
So we hung in there all day, all night, filing whatever updates we could gin up to keep our editors and producers happy. In between, to keep from going stir crazy, we’d play cards and then a crazy game one of my producers made up called “Slug Charades.” For those not in the biz, a slug is a story title. At CNN it was important to make up a catchy slug for your story because sometimes that would be all it took to sell the piece to a show producer in Atlanta. So we passed the time acting out some of our more clever slugs while the rest of our bureau crew attempted to identify it. The other scribes in the room just assumed we’d OD’d on Dove Bars and would need to detox eventually on GM catering’s tasty rice pilaf.
Well into the second day we got an urgent call from out national assignment desk in Atlanta. “Get the hell outta there! A ship blew up in the Saginaw River near Bay City!” No problem. We got our parole but someone needed to stay back to keep an eye on the talks, so we left one of our bureau staffers and told him to let us know the moment anything happened either way–and off we went…but not before a local TV reporter who had evidently lost her mind from all the waiting around could not believe we were bolting and yelled out, “what the fuck! You have to stay! We all have to stay! You can’t leave us behind!” Alas we just smiled…well..smirked…and took off for the two hour drive up to Bay City where we knocked out a few live shots, fed a package and high-tailed it back to Detroit where, back at GM, the two sides were still going at it. At least that’s what we assumed since we hadn’t heard from our guy who was holding the fort.
Knowing we had someone on-site, our desk told us to go home for a few hours, catch a few winks, take a shower, change our clothes. Early the next morning our guy left at GM rings my phone. He was from Georgia. “Hey Eeeeeeddddddddd! Somethin’s weird. No one’s in the press room anymore! Ah dunno whut’s goin’ on!” Shit. I told him to call up to the GM press office, which he did, then called me back to inform me, “sheeeeeeet! All I did was close mah eyes for a bit and they freakin’ came to an agreement while ah wuz sleepin’! What should ah doooooooooo?” Hmm…find another job?
Well, yes…there was no one in the newsroom anymore because….THEY WERE ALL UPSTAIRS AT A NEWS CONFERENCE ANNOUNCING THE CONTRACT SETTLEMENT!
Luckily, CNN had four affiliates in Detroit at the time so once our national desk realized Sleeping Beauty had napped through the breaking story they were able to quickly arrange to grab the live signal from one of the stations.
The rest of us had to hustle downtown to the bureau, which was two blocks from GM, and crash together some sort of reporter package.
We were all just glad it would be, at the time, three years until the next round of talks. Oh…nothing could happen, right?
Our wedding anniversary is September 15th–the precise day the contract would expire. 1993 marked our 20th anniversary. Kinda special, right? I spent most of it at Ford World Headquarters, “The Glass House,” instead of celebrating our big anniversary at home with my wife and kids. CNN was sensitive to this and was kind enough to agree to fly in my predecessor in Detroit, Bob Vito, from L.A., where he was now stationed. After all, he had many years of covering contract talks. The plan was for Bob to spell me for a bit so we could at least go out to dinner, then I would return to Ford.
Heh. I waited and waited and waited and waited and Vito doesn’t show up until around midnight. “Where the hell were ya?” I ask. “Oh…I just really needed a Lafayette coney dog, it’d been a long time.”
Whatever. I finally got home for late night drink and toast. Better than nothing. Of course all is not fair. Along with all the other journalists I had been going stir crazy at Ford for almost 36 hours with nothing. Then my guy, fat and happy with his belly filled with coneys strolls in and an hour or so later they reach an agreement.
The last talks I covered for CNN were in 1999 and this time we were holed up at the basement press room at the Chrysler headquarters in suburban Auburn Hills, Mich. Again…nothing to report for hours and hours and hour but we were always well fed, which just made us more sleepy.
You know that thing about history repeating itself? Yeah..it’s not bull. Nine years after being wrenched from GM to cover the Saginaw River explosion we get an urgent call from the Atlanta desk. “There’s been a church shooting in Fort Worth, Texas! Multiple deaths. We’re throwing a ton of resources at it, so get the hell outta there and head to Texas!”
Uh…sure. By the time we could get our gear packed and down to the airport, which was at least an hour’s drive away, and then down to Fort Worth, what really would be left to cover? But we did as we were told, hustled to the scene and I was instructed to stand in front of a camera to do a live shot. I stood there for an hour when some producer said, “eh, don’t really need ya.” The next day we were assigned a follow up piece. Filed it and another producer said, “eh, don’t really need that.” So we took our toys and flew back to Detroit to continue covering the contact talks but…well, you know the ending…they settled while we were en route and CNN had a reporter from one of our affiliates do a live shot.
So…the final tally on that one? Got wrenched from covering contract talks to fly 1,500 miles to cover a shooting story that in a town where CNN already had a bureau and crew that did a fine job handling it when it broke, so our work was not needed and in the meantime missed the big finish to the story we should never had been told to vacate.
I covered one more set of talks in 2003 when I was the GM beat writer for The Detroit News. This time I was allowed to see it through and no one napped. But times had changed significantly since 1990. Despite my strongest hankerings there wasn’t a Dove Bar to be found.