On the Road Again, Workers Finding a Voice

Some weeks after the onset of the strike, strikers began travelling in an ever wider radius outside of Lock Haven to publicize their struggle and seek support for their activities. Eventually many strikers participated in car “caravan” activities and other forms of outreach, some travelling overall as many as 25-50,000 miles before the strike’s end. Where they spoke and told of the nature of their struggle, they also were received, greeted and supported with addresses from other unionists.

These interchanges formed a dialogue and built solidarity between Lock Haven unionists and others around the country, helping them to voice and understand their own history as it was unfolding and as they travelled. Highlighted here are some exemplary speeches given and received by Lock Haven strikers and their supporters.

George Werheiser (President of Northampton County Labor Council, newly elected as of 1988/at United Auto Workers Local 677 Hall in Bethlehem;speaking on 2-29-88):

       It’s good to see all of you again. Some of you are really starting to look familiar, I see you so often. I just want to thank you people. And I mean this sincerely. When we were up there in November, I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved by an experience as witnessing what happened up at Lock Haven, or what is happening up at Lock Haven. I am a third generation steelworker and I’ve always heard a lot of stories about how rough the strike of 41 was, and so on and so forth. But I never really witnessed a strike like you people are going through. I never really witnessed the solidarity that you people have. It’s something that you should damn well be proud of, because I’m proud of you. I’m proud to say that I’m a union person and you people are the type of people that make unionism
what it is today. I just want to thank you sincerely for that experience.

       And I’ll tell you, I don’t think I’ve ever, ever seen a group of people so enthused at a rally as your rally up there, especially at what had happened the night before. Some of you may recall the day that we came up there, eleven of us from Northampton County Labor Council, you buried a brother who committed suicide. I remember that because that moved me. Also, one of your brothers lost their home in a fire that night. And another member of your local, I would imagine I should say an ex-member, was killed in fighting that fire. And that moved me. I just want to thank you again for that experience. I told you when I was up there the last time, I’ll be up there again. I’ll be up there before you win the battle, and I’ll be up there after you win the battle. And with that I just want to wish you the best of luck. And thank you.

Introduction of Bill Sanders who introduces his wife, Joan Sanders:

Joan: Hi. I had a nice speech but George gave it. Bill is going to make me go first because I don’t know what to say. First of all, I’m Joan Sanders. I haven’t worked for nine months, and that wasn’t to have a baby. If this is a baby, it’s a loo-loo. Nine months ago we voted to strike the biggest, the largest, paper company in the world. Of all the paper mills they own, we have the lowest pay. When we went out, all we asked for ...don’t take away anything, we don’t want any more, we just want what we had. You know what they did. They said go out on the street, you aren’t worth anything but the dirt on the street. We’ll bring people in to replace you. Twelve years of loyalty I gave them. Bill gave them 25. Some of them in there for nine months, they think they’re wonderful. I watched my husband get beat, and I’m talking beat. I would say...the shit kicked out of him, but we’re not to say that, by two scabs from that mill. I saw my husband take them to court. I saw my husband stand there and give his story. And I saw the judge say, you’re wasting my time, case dismissed.

       We don’t even have the law on our side up there. If we want a rally, we have more police than we do union people. They stand there in their riot gear. We have a mini-Rambo squad that fly over us. If we do anything, say anything, you get handcuffs put on you and you go and pay a fine. If they say you threw a stone at them, it costs you a thousand dollars. What they do is OK. If you want to use the road in front of the mill when they’re going in and out, forget it. They’re the only ones allowed to use the road. You cannot travel that road when scabs are going in and out. There’s something wrong in this country when this happens. We have laws that don’t help us. We’ve got to change them. We have got to get out and vote, change the laws, so that you and I will not lose our jobs to these replacement workers. We have brother against brother, father against son up there. You can’t trust the person beside you, because you don’t know if he’s a scab or not. You can’t say hello anymore to anybody on the street. You don’t know if they’re a scab. You walk around with your head held high, you’re union. But if you walk with your head looking to the ground, you’re a scab.

       Some day we’re gonna go back in that mill. And when we do, we’re goin to go back as a union. We’re gonna walk tall because we know we are fighting corporate greed. Some people say...I’m glad I’m not you. Well, for all you that do work, I’m glad that I’m not you. Because if it wouldn’t have been for this strike, these people you see here tonight, we said hi in the mill...but since we’ve been out...you could ask them for the shirt off their back and they’d give it to you. I have found love, friendship, and solidarity. And thank God I’m one of you.

Bill: I believe that’s the first time my wife ever spoke in public.

* * *

Speech at meeting of International Ladies Garment Workers Union, March 18, 1988 by Ruth Strumpf: Ruth:

I want to thank Gail and everybody who’s invited us here. You might wonder what papermakers have to do with the garment industry. But we are in a battle, the labor movement is in a battle. And we’ve got to join together, we really do. Because if we don’t get awakened, we’re all gonna be out there hurtin, we really are. Because we sat around figurin that things wouldn’t happen to us.

       I’m gonna share with you some things. We at Lock Haven were forced into a lockout-strike situation with three other mills by International Paper Company. Lock Haven, which I’m sure that some of you or most of you have heard of, we have 720 members. And when we had our strike vote taken, we had 92.3% voting to strike. Just that itself should tell you that we were united, that these concessions and things that International Paper Company was demanding were really ridiculous. International Paper Company came to the table demanding eighteen concessions.

       One of those was that we lose our premium pay for our Sundays. We are a mill that works seven days a week, three tours. We work 39 Sundays out of the 52. And working at straight time, this would mean a decrease in our pay by 6 1/2%. Another thing they wanted to do was eliminate the holidays. And every one of those, they wanted us to work 365 days a year straight time, including Sunday. Mr. John Georges, who’s President of International Paper Company, made a statement that as far as he was concerned, they couldn’t even prove to him that Christ was born, you know, that Christmas just meant nothing to him. They wanted to contract out manufacturing and maintenance jobs . That meant that nobody’s job was secure. They could have come in and said ...hey, this particular group, you know, we’re bringing somebody else in. We’ve contracted out your jobs. They would bring people in to work our jobs at a lower rate. They wanted to reduce the starting labor rate by $1.16 an hour. They wanted to cross crafts. That means they could see maybe you were waiting for something or whatever, and they’d just take you and push you over here on somebody else’s job. It was a thing that they just wanted to do to eliminate jobs.

       But the people who are making their bread and butter, they’re trying to, you know, shove right out the door. Right now we have 550 replacement workers in there, working our jobs. I’m telling you or asking you people to go back and share with your other people how important it is for all of us to get registered, to go out and exercise that right. You think it doesn’t count but it does. We all have ourselves to blame for this situation.

       Because we didn’t take action before, we’ve got to get out to our congressmen, our legislators, especially to get these laws changed that are against labor. This replacement law is ridiculous. You know, we’re supposed to be a free country. They say we have the right to strike, but yet on the other hand they bring in replacement workers and we cannot, we do not have the leverage at all. We’ve got to get this law eliminated and try to get some other laws. I’m sure you people have felt the effect where companies have come in and they just, you know, overnight close down and move someplace else, and open up without a union. We’ve got to get together, support one another, and fight corporate greed. That is the story. When they came to us they figured that we would take it lying down, we’d stay on the picket line. But we haven’t. We’re going out and we’re spreading the word and we’re trying to get people to support us and trying to get this country of ours back to where it should be.

an Oral History Project by Dr. Bob Allen, Technical Assistance Ron Gruici
Copyright 2007