Twenty-five years ago, on June 15, 1987, 1,250 men and women took a stand at International Paper’s Androscoggin Mill in Jay that proved to be a turning point in labor relations in Maine and a sign that our country needs real labor reform.
Despite a year of record profits, IP proposed a new union contract that demanded substantial wage givebacks, reduced benefits and hundreds of job cuts.
After a lifetime (and in some families, multiple lifetimes) of dedication to and hard work for the company, the workforce felt betrayed. IP was no longer interested in maintaining the longstanding relationship built out of mutual respect between employees and management. Instead, the company decided to make every effort to cut costs in order to increase profit for shareholders.
The workers had no choice but to strike, and demonstrated remarkable solidarity.
When IP hired permanent strike replacements, few of the strikers flinched, despite the loss of their jobs and paychecks. During the lengthy 15-month strike, only 78 of the 1,250 strikers crossed the picket line and returned to work. They remained steadfast under the able leadership of Local 14 President Bill Meserve. Hundreds attended weekly meetings, joined by union brothers and sisters from Maine and all over the country. They all chanted together, “Scabs out, union in.”
The community also stood up for their neighbors. Food and clothing were distributed to union members. Job banks were created. Local financial institutions even relaxed loan terms to ease the pressure on striking workers. Imagine that happening today.
Unfortunately, the strike ultimately failed.
In October 2009, the unions called an end to the strike and unconditionally offered to return to work. Under the National Labor Relations Act, workers were recalled as vacancies arose. The last worker was recalled to work just a few years ago, almost 20 years after the strike ended.
The seeds of the strike’s failure lay in a Supreme Court decision some 50 years earlier, which was little noticed at the time. In 1938, in NLRB v. McKay Radio, the high court held that it was not an unfair labor practice to hire permanent replacements. The significance of the case lay largely dormant until 1981, when President Ronald Reagan hired strikebreakers to replace the air traffic controllers. Until then, few employers dared to hire permanent replacements. After the strike, it was open season on unions. Indeed, as a precursor to the Jay strike, two years earlier, Boise Cascade in Rumford also had hired a number of strike replacements.
On a local level, the strike affected more than the 1,250 who were on the picket lines. It affected their families, their neighbors and the entire community. To this day, some family members still don’t talk to each other. Even when they do, there is still anger, hurt and mistrust.
IP’s victory showed that even where you have a community as strong and close as Jay was, when an international company determines to defeat a union, a community can break and the effect can last generations.
On a larger scale, the Jay strike marked the beginning of the end of the use of the strike as an economic weapon and underscored that our nation’s labor laws are ineffective. If 1,250 workers can strike for 15 months, maintain virtual 100 percent solidarity and still be defeated, then the labor laws don’t prevent a company from crushing its union.
On this day, the anniversary of the beginning of the Jay strike, let us honor the heroic men and women of Jay by demanding real labor reform.
Real labor law reform would mean banning the hiring of permanent strike replacements, assuring employees who strike of the right to immediate reinstatement upon the end of a strike.
If we can’t do that, let’s at least pass a limited version of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would require mediation and then binding arbitration if parties are unable to agree upon contract terms after 90 days. Right now, there is no incentive for an employer to agree.
If we are to learn anything from the Jay strike, it is that the imbalance of power between companies and workers affects not only our workers, but our communities. We need to end that imbalance through labor reform.
Jeffrey Young is an attorney and partner at McTeague Higbee. He represented the union and workers during the International Paper strike in Jay.