• How My Father’s Strike Nearly Broke Our Town in Two

    Kerri Arsenault on an Early Lesson in Labor and Loyalty

    My father went on strike. Twice. Once in 1980 and again in 1986, both when I lived at home.

    The gist of the second strike, the most turbulent, was this: Boise Cascade, the owner of the paper mill where my father worked, wanted its employees to fill in where ever the mill needed them, with no regard for their actual job descriptions. Pay and benefits wouldn’t take a hit, but this was a philosophical strike. Most workers feared that a dilution of their specialties would be the beginning of their slow-motion termination, a downsizing of their identity. My mother put it this way: “Originally, if you needed a lightbulb changed, you would have to call an electrician. If your father needed a pipe soldered, he’d get a welder to do it. It was a major change for these guys.”

    On the evening their contract expired, we heard horns. Horns for hours. Horns into the night while Union members walked off the job, got into their cars, and drove laps around the mill’s main gate blaring their grievances.

    Within days, Dick’s Restaurant, a local diner halfway between our house and the mill, vibrated with the broody rumble of the temporarily unemployed. My father, who often worked the 7-3 shift, had always left home before dawn. Out of habit and out of work, he went to Dick’s instead, where he’d pull up a folding metal chair with the guys and drink coffee that tasted like it had been brewed with twigs that dropped from the beds of logging trucks. In those fraught early hours of the strike, it felt a little like vacation.

    I was home from college that summer with no job of my own, as I had counted on working in the mill. I wasn’t alone. All of us kids who couldn’t wait to get into the mill and make wages we couldn’t get anywhere else were told by our parents that if we worked there that summer, we’d be disowned. Instead, I delivered newspapers: the same papers my father yelled at before heading to Dick’s. I followed him there, where everyone would rehash the headlines about the strike and plot out the day’s picketing schedule. Even though the restaurant was packed, the mill’s downscaled production meant the clatter of normal mill operations was hushed, and in the balm of the late summer air, the intermittent silence felt like the warm breath of a sigh. We drank it up along with our bitter coffee.

    “In those fraught early hours of the strike, it felt a little like vacation.”

    Ten days into the dispute, Boise hired scabs. The strikers fought for their rights and eventually fought each other. It was scab versus non-scab; you sided with the Union or else. Picketers howled at logging trucks and banged on the hoods of scabs’ cars as their vehicles slithered through the mill’s main gates. People vandalized homes. Neighbors fought toe-to-toe. Cars got keyed. Heads were bashed. A roustabout even fired gunshots. At night, men and women gathered at the unofficial strike headquarters, The Hotel, for beer and blackballing super scabs, a special designation given to millworkers who went on strike and returned to work during the strike, but in someone else’s job.

    I remember standing in line to receive our family allotment of “strike food”: industrial-sized and industrial-made bread, pasta, powdered milk, and “cheese food” the size of a kindergartner’s torso. The cheese wasn’t even dignified with a brand name like Velveeta. It just said, “Cheese Food” in practical Helvetica. Although I experienced the strike firsthand, I probably never considered the implications while I lived it. I was just a kid, wearing a red-lettered STRIKE! tee-shirt like I did my Steve Grogan jersey, summoning the toughness I understood to be part of being loyal to something even if it was the losing side. It seemed we were never on the winning team but we convinced ourselves we were better for it. Being right was what counted.

    In the middle of the dispute, the Chief of Police, John Bernard, who also served on Board of Selectmen, gave the scabs permission to leave their cars at the Mexico town hall parking lot and shuttled them past the incensed strikers who policed mill gates. Union members who got wind of Chief Bernard’s decision drove to Mexico and surrounded the scabs’ cars with their own. A pickup truck of about 15 guards from Metropolitan Security Services, a strike control organization hired by Boise to mitigate violence and protect Boise’s assets, arrived before the cops. They vaulted out of the flatbed and attacked the strikers, thumping heads and bodies. Strangers in riot gear pushing around our fathers and grandfathers, our mothers and grandmothers; this, for us, was war.

    At a town meeting after the incident, my father spoke out, for maybe the first time in his life. With his voice wobbling in that hot, volatile room, he said he thought about going back to work, but “the Boise goons in Mexico only unified us more,” referring to the security men who had clobbered his friends.

    The strike disoriented people like my father, blue collar workers who grew up respecting another man’s rights and another man’s job. Boise’s contempt for loyalty also infuriated millworkers who, before the strike, felt they had had a voice in collective bargaining as well as neighborly regard from their employer. Suddenly they were being told, without much say in the matter, what to do. My father believed that Boise didn’t want to negotiate in good faith because a broken Union and a flexible workforce would grant Boise the upper hand in any future bargaining. Yet millworkers thought they had the upper hand: they knew how to run that mill better than any of their absentee owners or the supervisors who had flown in from around the country during the strike. A plywood spray-painted picket sign summed up how the strikers felt: “Lincoln freed the slaves, Boise wants them back.”

    Boise reasoned that foreign competition necessitated concessions on the millworkers’ part, so that the products they made could be more competitive in a growing global market. The parties brought in a federal mediator who, when he got frustrated, tapped Maine Governor Joseph Brennan to ease negotiations, asking Boise to give a little. Nothing helped. Both parties were confident the other would surrender. Neither would. Boise underestimated the quintessential stubbornness of third generation millworkers whose belief in the American dream wasn’t about to be crushed by the un-calloused hands of absentee mill owners. The millworkers underestimated the economic, cultural, and political pressures outside the boundaries of our towns.

    “Both parties were confident the other would surrender. Neither would.”

    My father’s hatred of then-President Ronald Reagan, who he blamed for everything bad going on in the world and in our town, infected our whole family. We weren’t allowed to say his name aloud or talk to anyone who did. In 1984, the first Presidential election I was old enough to vote in, I led my high school’s Democratic campaign for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket, schooled by my father’s assertion that Regan’s anti-union stance would “destroy the working man.” Reagan’s 1981 assault on unions resonated across the country and into Maine when he broke the air traffic controller strike by firing 11,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post wrote in 2004 that Reagan’s action was “an unambiguous signal that employers need feel little or no obligation to their workers, and employees got that message loud and clear.” My father’s description of Reagan was more concise: “that fucking asshole.”

    One day, in the middle of the strike, my 11-year-old brother Joel, rode his bike to our grandmother’s house, something we’d do when seeking sibling respite or a ham sandwich. “Let’s go for a ride,” she said to Joel, and they hopped in her brown Chrysler LeBaron, a car she operated with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake. Joel thought she was taking him for an ice cream; instead they drove down to the picket line. As she skittered past our friends and neighbors, she leaned heavily on the horn for a half mile, screaming obscenities out the window in the general direction of the mill, jerking the car with each “You goddamn bastards!” It was how we all felt really—whiplashed by the stop-and-go decisions of the corporations who employed us, and powerless against the federal government’s laws that weakened us. All we could do was scream.

    On June 29, 1986, the Union voted on their contract. Over 94% of its members voted against Boise’s offer. The mill’s production capacity had plummeted by 50%, and laborers were still out of work. But by September, after months of tense negotiations, the Union accepted the final contract even though they still opposed it. If they had voted against the offer and the mill hired more scabs than union workers, their union could be decertified under U.S. labor laws.

    In the end, nobody won. The 76 day strike had cost Boise Cascade $30 million dollars and the loyalty of their workforce. And 76 days had taught the strikers not to trust their employers . . . or their neighbors. Ever again. Of the 1,600 striking workers, about 340 of them—in a community of 8,000—permanently ceded their jobs to what felt like a labor-unfriendly boss and a labor-unfriendly country.

    A few years before the strike, my mother had started working at G.H. Bass, a celebrated Maine shoe company that began crafting shoes in 1876; they created the world’s first penny loafer. Bass had opened a new plant in Rumford, advertising 400 jobs. We needed the extra income, my mother reasoned, if her children were to attend college. My father’s income, even if we maxed out student loans and won scholarships, would never be able to cover the cost of five successive tuition bills.

    “I laced those goddamn rawhide moccasin bows. You know the ones? My hands were so sore I had to soak them every night. It was like a goddamn sweatshop,” my mother said. In the morning after clocking in, a horn blew, which meant my mother needed to be in her position. She worked until the horn blew again for lunch. Then the horn blew to indicate the end of lunch. “You stood there working with no break, all day until that horn blew, telling you what to do.”

    My mother was fast at tying bows, but her speed and second income didn’t necessarily double our savings. The more they both worked, the more my parents needed to. And the strike had taught us that my father’s income was no longer reliable. When the cost of living rose, they simply went without, investing any ancillary monies they scraped together into our college funds so we wouldn’t have to work under the bleat of wailing horns.

    Two storms arrived the year after the strike and caused extreme flooding in the Androscoggin River, which twists through town. People couldn’t get in or out, penned in by the river’s rage. After the water receded and summer gave way to early fall, the Klu Klux Klan descended on Rumford and Mexico, capitalizing on the helplessness and animosity left by the flood and the strike.

    The KKK were no strangers to Maine. The establishment of industrial centers like Rumford interrupted homogenous Protestant Yankee towns in the early 1920s. F. Eugene Farnsworth, a former hypnotist, shepherded the KKK to Maine, and they grew to around 50,000 members. In the South, their focus was on African Americans; in the North, the KKK were also devoted to a grisly anti-French Catholic agenda, a group who they blamed for stealing their jobs and contaminating white Protestant culture.

    “The strike created a wound in our towns that never quite healed, and for a while, I thought that’s why replacement workers were called scabs.”

    I had already returned to college when the Klan came striding through town in their white cotton robes and pointy hats to recruit new members who felt shuttled by the shifting economic winds. Gerald Cote, a local man, invited the Klan to his farm for a picnic and to burn a cross in his hayfield. That night, Cote emerged from his house wearing a KKK t-shirt and brandishing a gun to a furious crowd of protestors.

    My mother attended the demonstration. Afterward, she mailed me a news clipping that showed her holding a sign saying, “GO AWAY KKK!” her angry face moiréd by the inky newsprint upon which the photo was published. The protestors far outnumbered the Klansmen, and the words on my mother’s sign came true. The KKK cleared out and left Cote with the simmering embers of that cross and the loathing of most of the town. Still, the bad mood festered in Rumford and Mexico, alongside the mill’s pollution, neither of which was washed away by costumed racists or seasonal weather.

    The strike created a wound in our towns that never quite healed, and for a while, I thought that’s why replacement workers were called scabs. The local workers eventually deserted the mill emotionally, even though they couldn’t fiscally. Despite the unfavorable contract the Union was offered, the men and women of Rumford and Mexico returned to work but remained pissed off about the whole ordeal until they retired, quit, or died. The sons and daughters of those strikers still bear lesions of the damage to this day, with broken families and friendships littering the town like the poisonous tailings of a long-closed mine.

    The Union never recovered either, according to Ron Hemingway, who in 2016 served as the President for United Steelworkers International Union in Rumford. “Organized labor is still under duress, especially under Maine’s leadership of Governor LePage.”

    For a while, the walls of Maine’s Department of Labor stood blank, lain fallow by Maine Governor Paul LePage. Not long after he was elected in 2011, LePage had removed a commissioned mural that depicted a history of Maine labor: lumberjacks, women workers during World War II, textile makers, child laborers, and workers on strike. LePage received, according to the New York Times, a fax from a “secret admirer” stating the mural “was reminiscent of ‘communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.’” A spokesperson for LePage said unapologetically the mural was “not in keeping with the department’s pro-business goals.”

    On January 14, 2013, the mural was restored—but to the halls of the Maine State Museum instead of the Department of Labor. It’s likely more people will see the artwork there, but it exists now as an artifact of a whitewashed past, rather than an accurate history of our state in the very halls where blue-collar labor may have lost its breath. The mural represents an intersection of power and truth, and like America, the latter is being gutted by the interests of the former.

    I watched my father play softball the summer of the strike, fielding stinging balls hit down third base line after he crept in to take away the bunt. He was quick, efficient. I never saw him make an error. When I was ten, he had coached my summer softball team and insisted on the same kind of excellence. You’re throwing like a goddamn GIRL! he’d yell at my throws from third to first if they weren’t fast enough. But the worst sin was striking out without swinging. It didn’t matter if the pitch hit the batter’s box. You got two strikes on you! he’d yell from the dugout. Don’t just watch the ball go by—SWING!

    Before the strike, he had been the dutiful dad, attending all my athletic events—instead of me attending his—or gathering us around the supper table at 4:00 pm, meting out any punishment my mother couldn’t manage on her own. And my mom, she used to be at home instead of picketing corporations or men with pointy hats. Together, they had created a place of safety for me and my siblings, divorced from their own desires.

    After that strike, I saw them anew. My father was a regular guy who lingered over coffee at Dick’s, shot the shit with friends midweek and midday, but on the third strike, he always swung for the fence while my mother shredded her fingers.

    The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.

    Kerri Arsenault
    Kerri Arsenault
    Kerri Arsenault is a literary critic, co-director of The Environmental Storytelling Studio at Brown University; Democracy Fellow at Harvard’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History; fellow at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia; contributing editor at Orion magazine; and author of Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains. Her writing has been published in the Boston Globe, The Paris Review, the New York Review of Books, Freeman’s, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

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