JAY — Thirty years ago, Cindy Bennett and her late husband, Rick Rush Jr., bought a freezer, stocked it with food and stopped unnecessary spending when it appeared union workers would strike against International Paper Co.
Workers in unions at other mills the company owned in other states were also considering going on strike.
Bennett, now 63, belonged to Local 14, United Paperworkers International Union. It was one of the unions at the mill.
Contract negotiations had failed. IP sought concessions of lower labor costs, reduction of jobs, more manager flexibility and removing Christmas as a non-working day, according to published reports about the strike. The company was supposedly making record profits and gave large bonuses to executives. It was also facing foreign competition.
“We never signed a contract on time,” Bennett said.
Members of the two local unions voted to strike and about 1,200 workers left their jobs after their last shift on June 15, 1987.
Bennett was one of the strikers who hit the picket line.
The bitterness stirred up during the 16-month strike, which ended in October 1988, still lingers for some, but not as vividly as it once did.
“To certain people it seems like it was yesterday. Others say get on with things. It all depends on who you talk to,” she said.
She didn’t let the strike or its aftermath consume her.
Union members asked company representatives to show them their books, Bennett said. They didn’t. If they had showed them the books, workers may have considered some concessions, she said.
Bennett went to work at IP first at the former Otis Mill, a paper mill that straddled the Jay/Livermore Falls line in January 1976. She wrapped big paper rolls by hand and rolled them to where they went and then worked on a rewinder.
She was one of the first women employed at the mill. IP sold the Otis Mill prior to the strike and it is now defunct.
Three months later, Bennett started at IP’s Androscoggin Mill on Riley Road.
The strike was contentious and violent at times, as IP brought in permanent replacement workers to take the jobs of employees who went on strike. In some ways, the strike divided the community. In other ways, it brought some families and friends closer as it split others apart.
Though three decades have passed, Bennett still harbors some anger toward certain people, she said.
For one thing, she would have never taken someone else’s job. She would have been ashamed if she did, she said.
“It may have been different if I had kids to support,” she said.
The strike was hard on a lot of families.
When talking about the strike, she still refers to replacement workers as “scabs,” and calls those who worked at the mill and went on strike and then crossed the picket line before the strike was over as “superscabs.”
She didn’t feel tension in the community because the “majority of the scabs didn’t live around here.” In later years, her husband became ill and he was her priority.
IP management went down South and recruited permanent replacement workers to take the jobs of strikers, Bennett said.
She doesn’t agree that the union workers walked off the job, as some claim.
“I don’t feel we walked off, it was standing up for what you believe,” she said.”We fought for our benefits.”
She remains proud of the union’s principles.
Bennett was out of work for three years until she was called back in October of 1990 to work at the Androscoggin Mill. Her husband had been called back earlier.
“I couldn’t go back unless my position opened up,” she said.
She had made a decent wage before the strike.
“When I went on strike I was making $17 an hour,” she said. “When I retired (28 years later) it was up to $21.”
She retired from the mill, now owned by Verso Androsccoggin LLC, a subsidiary of Verso Corp., in November of 2015.
While out of work, she and her husband did what they could to support the union’s effort and the families on strike.
One of the reasons the strike ended was to protect the jobs at Androscoggin Mill, Bennett said.
“Even though we lost the strike, we still had the union,” she said.
A vote that decertified the union at the mill took place in July 1992. At the time, there were 300 union members back to work and 800 replacement workers still on the job. The vote to decertify passed 660 to 380.
Subsequent votes to restore the union at the mill all failed.
Bennett stayed active outside the mill and paid dues for a while to keep the union hall on Route 140 going.
She estimated that there were probably 25 to 50 of the original people who went on strike working at the mill before she retired. It is unclear if that is still the case.
For the last 15 years at the Androscoggin Mill, she worked in motor storage and took care of electrical motors.
Bennett still loves her union.
“I loved my union people. Good people, hard working people. We worked hard. We played hard. And that’s gone. We always helped each other,” she said.
“The days of jobs being close by are gone,” Bennett said.
She recently turned over all her papers from the strike to Maine’s Paper and Heritage Museum in Livermore Falls.
When Julius “Jack” Getman, a labor law professor, came to Jay in June 1998 to sell and sign copies of his book, “The Betrayal of Local 14: Paperworkers, Politics and Permanent Replacements,” he told those gathered at the local union hall that strikers were betrayed by International Paper, the United Paperworkers International Union and the legal system.
Getman told the story of the strike and betrayal through dozens of interviews with people involved in the strike. Bennett was one of them.
IP declined to comment for this story.
Watch Cindy Bennett of Jay describe her decision to go on strike 30 years ago.