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International Falls: Legacy of the 1989 Labor Uprising
By Leif Enger
October 9, 1997

Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Eight years ago last month, 500 union supporters ran amok in the northern border town of International Falls. The city's largest employer, Boise Cascade, was building a huge expansion of their paper mill - and bringing in thousands of non-union workers to do it. The town was divided: while local businesses boomed like never before, union workers and their families felt betrayed.

September 9, 1989, hundreds of men came to the Falls, arriving before dawn in buses and pickups, then moving on foot through town toward the housing camp for non-union construction workers. They tore down the chain link fence, overwhelmed the small police force, tipped and burned trailer houses. No one here has forgotten it.

SFX: Shouting, shoving, Get that camera outta here! roar of flames, etc.

Mary: I woke to a phone call from a friend across the river in Canada who said, "What's going on over there? There's a mushroom cloud of smoke over your town - is the whole town on fire, or what?"

Larry: It's like war. Your town gets blown apart.

Carol: It was the only time in my life I've honestly felt there was no law and order. The police could do nothing. The sheriff could do nothing. The governor would not send in the National Guard. I hope that never happens again.

The riot peaked months of resentment between Boise Cascade, which was constructing one of North America's largest paper mills, and the trade union workers who had hoped to build it. When Boise hired the non-union Atlanta firm BE&K as general contractor for the half-billion dollar project, an ugly struggle seemed inevitable; strong labor is a tradition in northern Minnesota. Bob Anderson was, and still is, Boise's local spokesman.
Bob: It was a bittersweet situation, because the expansion of the plant was going to put much-needed dollars into the mill here. And for those of us employed here that was going to virtually guarantee we could retire at this location. In addition it would put a lot of our community to work - our employment was down to about 700, and now we're up close to 1200. That was the sweet part. The bitter part was that we were going to bring in people from the outside to do some of the construction, and that wouldn't sit well with some of the locals.
At the time, Boise said it was concerned there wouldn't be enough available union workers to build the plant on schedule - the late 1980s saw a construction boom, especially in the pulp and paper industry. The building trades didn't buy that argument - they viewed the hiring of BE&K as flagrant union-busting by Boise Cascade. Local union head Larry Baron:
Larry: You know, people have to take a stand when they feel they're being run over. And if you don't, you're gonna continue to get pushed further into the ground. That's oppression, man, and that's what our country was built on, fighting oppression. And that's what we did here.
With BE&K workers flooding into International Falls - drawing paychecks below trade scale - union members began a wildcat strike. They picketed the work site, printed threatening underground newsletters, and sometimes confronted their non-union competition in local taverns. Crime rose thirty percent. The families of BE&K employees - most of them from the South - shopped surreptitiously, speaking quietly to conceal their accents. These two women - twin sisters married to non-union workers - waited in the park one afternoon for their husbands to come off shift.
It's strange. We got to be careful who we talk to. Where we go. People hear us talk, they turn cold. You know what I mean, we go downtown, go in a store; it feels just like bein' a black person, down South.
Still, non-union workers and their families did shop, and they did rent, and they did go fishing on Sunday afternoons - and as their numbers swelled into the thousands, local merchants made money like never before. Near the end of the project, the handful of remaining strikers told MPR they'd been betrayed by their community, and by the leaders of their own unions.
Union built this town. People should remember that. Wait 'til this is over with - wait. If these people hadn't a been so greedy, this could been different. Everybody happy. Union workers. But it's all greed. We been left out here to dry.

SFX: machine roar, fade

The paper machine - finished two months early, against the strikers' predictions - has for the most part lived up to its billing. The mill is revitalized, among the most advanced and productive in the industry. It fills orders from all over the world; the jobs here seem safe for the foreseeable future.
SFX: empty street; slow traffic.
But outside the mill, International Falls seems economically slack. Predictions of sustained growth, based on the hundreds of new jobs in the expanded plant, haven't panned out. Carol Dalton, a travel agent and longtime Chamber of Commerce member, says many locals still haven't forgiven businesses for cashing in on BE&K.
Carol: There are many people who still have trouble shopping within the community. They give other reasons. They might say, "They don't have it, the selection's better somewhere else." But they've also indicated that the support was not there for them, during that time. It was a very deep hurt.
Union head Larry Baron says the backlash goes deeper than hurt feelings. When Boise's in-plant unions agreed to new contracts the spring of '89, the company dangled the expansion as incentive. If the unions signed, International Falls got the new paper machine - if they didn't, Boise Cascade would build elsewhere. Baron says the membership was overanxious in its hurry approving a contract which resulted in a payroll loss. He says that loss will be a big factor in the next contract talks in 1999, as will Boise's continuing use of some non-union workers in the plant.
SFX: Street
The paradox in the Falls is that even as Boise prospers, the community shrinks. The mill employs 400 more than a decade ago, yet population is down - from 10,000 to 8300. Boise Cascade is by far the Falls' largest employer and benefactor, paying more than half the taxes collected here - yet the company is still reviled by many union supporters. Eight years, says downtown chamber member Dalton, just isn't long enough to forget the strike, the boom, the riot. She offers the comfort of history.

Carol: You know this was not the first labor upheaval I'd seen since I lived in International Falls. Many years ago there was a Teamster's strike, and that, too, was a time when you were anxious about going certain places. Now people have forgotten that. And this, too, will eventually be forgotten.