Academic journal article The Oral History Review

"It Tears the Heart Right out of You": Memories of Striker Replacement at International Paper Company in De Pere, Wisconsin, 1987-88

Academic journal article The Oral History Review

"It Tears the Heart Right out of You": Memories of Striker Replacement at International Paper Company in De Pere, Wisconsin, 1987-88

Article excerpt

Abstract In the summer of 1987, more than 370 workers at Nicolet Paper Company in De Pere, Wisconsin, walked out on strike after refusing to agree to a wide range of concessions demanded by International Paper Company (IP), Nicolet's parent company. Within a few weeks, however, IP had permanently replaced the strikers, a tactic that became increasingly common in the 1980s. The author uses oral history interviews to provide a valuable, unique insight into the effects of the permanent replacement tactic, which bitterly divided the small community and left workers with psychological scars that were all too apparent more than a decade later. As the Nicolet workers were part of a broader showdown between IP and the United Paperworkers' International Union, the article also helps to illuminate the history of a major labor dispute of the 1980s.

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On June 8, 1987, more than 370 workers in the small community of De Pere, Wisconsin walked off their jobs at Nicolet Paper Company, a division of the giant International Paper Company (IP). In the same week, workers at large IP mills in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania and Jay, Maine also struck. By encouraging workers to walk out together, the United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU) hoped to push IP to abandon its attempts to inflict concessionary contracts on their members. The company, however, failed to give way; within a week of the walkouts, executives announced that they would run their mills and started to hire permanent replacements. The hiring of more than 2,200 replacements eventually forced the union to abandon the walkout in October 1988, ending an acrimonious and high-profile dispute. The strike provides insight into the bitterness caused by labor disputes in small communities, a bitterness exacerbated by the hiring of permanent replacements. More than twelve years later, former strikers vividly recalled the dispute and described the lasting impact it had made on their lives. "It's twelve years ago and it's going to be a sore spot with me for the rest of my life," recalled Jerry Herwald, who was the president of the local union at the time of the strike. "I think that International Paper with their big money hurt a lot of loyal workers. Like I said, we had people there with forty-one, forty-two, forty-four years of seniority and this company put them out of a job and treated them like dirt." (1)

The IP strike was typical of many disputes that occurred in the Reagan era. During the 1980s and 1990s, many corporations reacted to strikes by hiring permanent replacements, a clear departure from the temporary substitutes that management had traditionally turned to in previous decades. Unlike temporary replacements, who left at the end of a strike, permanent replacements were assured of strikers' jobs. After the strike, the law gave strikers the right to return to their old positions, but only if replacements left them. (2) Management in the 1980s met unions head on and hired permanent replacements in a series of high-profile disputes, including the steelworkers' battle against Phelps Dodge in 1983-84, the lengthy strike against Hormel by the United Food and Commercial Workers in 1985-86, and the strike at Eastern Airlines in 1989. (3) The 1980s, Labor Secretary Robert Reich told a 1993 Congressional Hearing, was "a decade characterized by a wave of labor disputes in which thousands of employees lost their jobs after they engaged in completely lawful economic strikes." (4)

Labor leaders argued that the hiring of permanent replacements was encouraged by Ronald Reagan's dismissal of 13,000 striking air traffic controllers in the summer of 1981. The hiring of replacements, unions argued, helped to destroy the right to strike and contributed to the decline of organized labor in the 1980s. Management, however, insisted that prohibiting companies from hiring permanent replacements would give unions too much power. (5) What was beyond dispute, however, was that the 1980s was a decade of rapid decline for U. …

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