“Divided We Fall: The Story of the Paperworkers’ Union and the Future of Labor;” by Peter Kellman; The Apex Press; paperback, $29.95

Long before 9/11, the phrase “United We Stand” stood for a different sort of patriotism. “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” was a labor union rallying cry for unity. That unity has been fought for and seldom won in the eyes of labor organizer and author Peter Kellman. Kellman celebrates the victories of the Paperworkers’ Union in Maine in his new book and asks labor to look hard at the strikes brought down by lack of local and national unity.

What does local unity look like? In the most compelling pages of Kellman’s book “Divided We Fall,” he recounts his favorite images from the 1987 paper workers’ strike in Jay. He recalls looking back from the main gate of the mill during a demonstration and seeing 10,000 people coming up the road towards him in a show of support. He remembers the interior of the Jay Community Center filled every Wednesday night with more than 1,000 people. For 60 weeks, they met and at the end of the meeting held raised hands and sang, “Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong.”

The union in Jay went out on strike in 1987 to show solidarity with 1,400 workers locked out by International Paper in Mobile, Ala. International Paper’s 1986 strategy was to present the union with a contract they could not abide, wait for the union to go out on strike and then permanently replace the striking workers and thus cripple the union, Kellman says. President Reagan had set the climate for replacements several years before by firing air traffic control workers who went out on strike.

In Jay, Local 14 of the United Paperworkers International Union ran an outstanding campaign, working locally to run food and clothing banks for striking workers, working statewide to confront International Paper on several fronts and nationally by encouraging other International Paper mills to strike as contracts came up. 1987 in Jay was a stunning example of what local unity could bring.

Tragically, the national union was not able to hold to the same resolve as Local 14. Despite plans to have each local union strike when its contract expired and not to sign any contracts with International Paper unless the pool of locals voted to do so, the UPIU called off the strikes without a vote by the membership in 1988 and Local 14’s hard-fought battle was lost.

Proud of their efforts

Kellman is fiercely proud of the 16-month fight in Jay and of his role in at as an AFL-CIO organizer. After the strike, Kellman sought to understand the history of corporate power and understand why International Paper was squeezing its workers for a larger profit. That history was easy to obtain, but the history of why the national union acted the way it did was a different, more complex story.

He spends the majority of the book reviewing the history of the local and national papermakers’ unions. The case that sheds the most light on Maine’s labor history is the different results of strikes in 1908 and 1910. A strike in Jay of the papermaker’s union in 1908 was broken by the more-elite pulp and sulphite union. Pulp and sulphite represented the skilled workers and managers, and that union’s sympathy for the worker did not extend to the unskilled labor class, he says. That prejudice underwent a sea change in 1910 when a coordinated strike by the two unions brought a major victory and forced better working conditions for both classes of workers.

Ironically, the concessions won in the early 1900s were so diminished by 1987 that Local 14 was fighting pre-1902 standards. Kellman uses excerpts from a letter from Phil Edwards after the 1987 strike in which he confronts the lack of national support. Edwards recalls his family’s service in World War I, World War II and Korea, and wonders why the country did not celebrate the war waged in Jay.

Next time you hear the phrase “United We Stand,” you might stop to wonder what true national solidarity means and what it could mean for labor in this country.

Kirsten Cappy is a bookseller in Portland.

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