Lessons from the Maine paperworkers strike

BOOK REVIEW

Peter Kellman was a key leader of the 1987-88 Paperworkers International Union (UPIU) strike against International Paper (IP) in Jay, Maine. “Divided We Fall” is a focused history of the 20th century struggles of Maine paperworkers that provides an understanding of the Jay strike’s ultimate defeat. Kellman’s well researched, leaflet-style account cannot conceal his bond with Jay strikers and their families, their past, and their future.

The passionate fight of the Jay paperworkers against IP demands that would “destroy our union,” UPIU Local 14, sent shock waves throughout the entire labor movement. It gave a boost to Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign — he finished a strong second in Maine and carried many mill towns — and sparked a national corporate campaign against IP.

For sure, most of the work-rule and outsourcing demands imposed by IP found their way into other mills over the years following the Jay strike, although without destruction of the union. Technology, global competition and IP’s arrogance all conspired to reduce the size of the paper industry, and Maine paperworkers union membership declined and did not recover.

Kellman holds the UPIU leadership primarily responsible for the strike’s defeat, believing that it did not fully support expanding the strike beyond the four shut-down “pool” plants, nor fully back the corporate campaign against IP.

Kellman finds a successful model in the rank-and-file based organizing drives of the 1920s paperworkers. The hard-won unity of the craft unions broke the IP-led resistance and resulted in significant contract and membership gains.

Drawing on the appeal of these years, Kellman champions a very “Wobbly-like” ideal of unionism that does not rest on the National Labor Relations Board or even collective bargaining contracts. Rather, its strength stems from rank-and-file and grassroots organization. Such ideals confront a repressive U.S. legal bias against labor organizing of any kind. Kellman’s conclusion is that the U.S. Labor Party is part of the answer. The Jay workers helped support Kellman’s ideals by mounting successful campaigns for local office and sanctions against IP for environmental violations.

Left untouched is the economic foundation of the IP dispute. Company officials, years later, conceded that the battle was a disaster. That’s good. The company’s barbaric tactics should earn it no less than what it brought to the people of Jay. But the demands to outsource skilled trades and combine other classifications were not an isolated incident, but connected to waves of computer control steadily undermining many craft-based tasks and processes.

How to get ahead of, instead of buried by, these changes presents a difficult challenge for all labor. Kellman’s history passes the test of a compelling read that lays out all the problems and challenges honestly — while recalling the deep reservoirs of strength to be found in the great battles of Maine paperworkers.

jcase@steuber.com