Ever since a small group of Paperworkers organized the first local in 1884 in Holyoke, Massachusetts, the history of unionism in the paper industry was one of growth and expansion. The first locals began in New England, but at the time of the merger to form PACE, UPIU had members across the United States and Canada. Originally, union membership was concentrated among skilled workers, but membership grew across the paper industry as well as many other industries. Unions in the paper industry have consistently sought to broaden their horizons. From small beginnings, the UPIU and its predecessor organizations built a union of 250,000 members.
Paperworkers have one of the longest organizing traditions in American history, with the first efforts dating back to 1765. Prior to the 1930s, however, there were no federal laws to protect union supporters from being fired, and those who supported organizing efforts often risked losing their livelihood. Despite these risks, many local unions were formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These eventually coalesced into two organizations: the International Brotherhood of Papermakers, representing skilled members on the paper machines; and the International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite, and Paper Mill Workers, representing skilled, semi-skilled, and non-skilled members in the mills.
UPIU members owed a great deal to their predecessors who were willing to risk all in the battle to establish a strong union in the paper industry. Time and time again, American employers bitterly resisted workers’ efforts to improve their conditions. In 1912, most employers fought workers’ attempts to secure the eight-hour working day. In the 1920s, paperworkers endured a five-year long strike at International Paper Company which saw union supporters evicted from their homes, guns erected on mill property, and strikers shot by company guards.
Workers’ desire for unionism was finally rewarded in the 1930s when the federal government, for the first time, recognized the right to form and organize unions. With federal protection now in place, union membership in the paper industry took off. During the 1930s, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) established its own organizing committee for paperworkers which became the United Paperworkers of America a few years later. Becoming firmly established in the 1930s and 1940s, paper unions negotiated wage improvements and many of the benefits that UPIU members enjoyed. Since the 1930s, union pressure helped to establish paperworkers as some of the most highly paid manufacturing workers in the entire United States. In 1957, after the merger of the AFL and the CIO united the house of labor, the CIO Paperworkers merged with the Papermakers to form the United Papermakers and Paperworkers (UPP). Then, in 1972, the UPP merged with the Pulp and Sulphite Workers to form the UPIU.
In recent years, UPIU confronted new challenges. In the 1980s, for example, the union faced determined employer opposition and bitter strikes as corporations pressed to force concessions from the UPIU members. The union, however, met all challenges head on, and increasingly recognized the need for all workers to stand together. UPIU continued to diversify its membership base, joining with other unions in a drive to build a more powerful union. In 1991, the UPIU welcomed 74 locals of the Independent Workers of North America (IWNA) into its fold. The IWNA affiliation brought in over 7,500 new members in the cement and kaolin industries. In January 1994, the UPIU merged with the Allied Industrial Workers, gaining members in automotive parts and a wide variety of related industries.
Throughout its history, workers in the UPIU and its predecessor organizations fought and sacrificed to build a large, successful union. They battled against determined corporate resistance to maintain a decent standard of living. The UPIU members’ spirit is captured by Leonard Wensel, a member from Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, who participated in the bitter 1987-88 strike against International Paper Company:
“I am union. I was forged with the sweat of many people. I was born to provide strength and protection for workers worldwide and I am dedicated to the goals of fair treatment for workers throughout the world and advance the goals of freedom everywhere. The blood of many members flows through my veins. I am thousands of people striving for better working conditions … I can be found in small villages and large towns in countries all over the world. I am black, white, red and yellow and every color in between. I am a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Christian and many other religions … I am the spirit of the world. I was the spirit that would not die during the confrontations with companies in the ‘20s and ‘30s. I am the spirit that small unions spread and developed into large unions and then into international unions. I am the spirit that still leads people to run for union offices … I have made my mark on time by standing with the leaders of the earliest of unions and with the newest of locals. I am a union member building my country. Be proud, be great and know that I am you, a union member.”