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Darth Vega to the Rescue 

New Chronicle Publisher Frank Vega has been cast as a villain, but he may be just what the Hearst empire needs to defeat the dark forces of the new economy

Wednesday, May 4 2005
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"Everyone turned around, and trucks came barreling out, picking up speed down the driveway. They never slowed down," she says. "People were screaming, jumping out of the way, dragging people out of the way. People were falling down." The trucks rolled into the street and hung a hard right, according to Cook, and it speaks to either the strikers' paranoia or management's ruthless bravado that a Teamster, noting how the trucks shook and bounced, could have sworn they were empty. No one was hurt, Cook says, but after that "people felt their lives meant nothing to the newspapers."

The strike's iconic moment, however, was "the helicopter incident," as it's generally referred to, which Vega explains by saying, simply, "We brought in helicopters so we could get papers distributed." But it was more than that -- it was a taunt, a giant middle finger to the unions. Caron was at the printing plant that night and watched as a pair of rented Sikorsky helicopters -- "big, military-airlift-type helicopters ... like the kind you see dropping food supplies in Baghdad" -- fluttered to the ground. His first thought: "Holy shit." Says Caron: "Here was a true symbol of commitment to getting these papers out, regardless of the cost." (Vega says the stunt cost $40,000 to $50,000, "not as much as you think.") The copters flew the papers to distribution facilities, and trucks took them from there. It was an outsize gesture, so much so that, Caron says with a laugh, "Some of [the strikers] probably thought they were going to deliver papers door to door by helicopter."

Vega's hard-line stance couldn't have been a surprise, given Gannett's historically uneasy relationship with unions. (Of the company's 102 papers, only a handful are unionized.) It was his flourishes, more than anything, that seemed to set people against him -- the helicopters, the acid quotes, maybe even the gun in his briefcase (given to him by his bodyguard "because of the threats to my kids and my wife and stuff"). His every move was read as self-aggrandizement, perhaps to an unfair degree. When he invited four or five picketers into his house in exclusive, affluent Grosse Pointe Farms -- where people would stand on the median and chant, "Your neighbor is a crook" -- for a discussion, it was seen as yet more swagger from Darth Vega.

"You have to understand," Vega says, "that anytime you make tough decisions, anytime you make people accountable that have not been accountable in the past, you're gonna anger some people. The fact that we -- and I wanna make this real clear: Nobody wins in a strike -- the fact that we prevailed in the strike, the fact that we got a newspaper delivered and continued to publish in America's premier union town, that angers a lot of people. The whole paradigm changed there. Companies aren't supposed to win a strike in Detroit." He catches himself. "They're not supposed to prevail."

"Why don't we get something straight about dealing with unions," Vega goes on. "I don't have a problem with unions. This thing about me and unions -- I come from a union family. I appreciate my mom and dad, how they worked, and what working people do. I myself was a steelworker for a summer -- I actually had a steelworker's card my summer after high school. I worked in a steel mill. So it's unfortunate that one situation, which was obviously a major situation, kind of brands me anti-union."

More than just anti-union, though, he was, to the strikers, an asshole, a cocksucker. Succhia minchia. It was Vega, his personality, that offended them, not just his business philosophy. Everything he did, personal and professional, was fodder for a slogan or a sign. And there was plenty of fodder.

In 1992, Vega pleaded guilty in Michigan to operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of liquor and was slapped with a fine and a year of probation; the conviction apparently was later reduced to careless or reckless driving. "I was out with a bunch of Teamsters that night," Vega says. "You take it from there." (In 2003, Cocoa Beach police stopped Vega early one morning for speeding in a rented Chevrolet Impala. He was charged with driving under the influence. The case is pending.)

And in 1994, just months before the strike, Vega was implicated in an elaborate insider-trading scheme. In its suit, the SEC alleged that he and five other men earned more than $400,000 by illegally trading stock in Rochester Community Savings Bank, where a Gannett executive named Thomas J. Farrell was on the board of directors. Vega signed a consent decree, neither admitting nor denying the charges, and agreed to pay $98,338, constituting his profit and his fine. The details of the case were perhaps just as damaging to Vega's reputation. According to the SEC, Farrell passed along the stock tip to Vega while on a weekend golf trip, which is about as close as you can get to a caricature of white-collar crime. A story in Crain's Detroit Business ran under the headline "SEC SCANDAL COULD HAUNT VEGA IN TALKS," and sure enough, strikers later printed up a "Wanted" poster for "Criminal Frank Vega." Among his crimes: "Drinking & Driving" and "Insider Trading."

"You have to realize," Vega says, "people lost their jobs in Detroit during the strike. People lost their families. People got divorced. I mean, a strike is not good. A lot of bad things happen. Well, those people have to blame somebody. They can't blame themselves, because they went on strike. They can't blame the readership, because they believed in the unions. And so who are they gonna focus on? They focus on the guy that's the head of the company. Do they hate me personally? Did I step on somebody's toes or did I personally take somebody's house away? No.

About The Author

Tommy Craggs

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