‘The Mill’ brings story of 1989 Boise Cascade protests to the stage

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In the spring and summer of 1989, thousands of union members and supporters protested at Boise Cascade in International Falls, where the company had hired an out-of-state, non-union contractor to build a $535 million plant expansion. Tensions escalated. In September, hundreds of union supporters stormed the housing camp for non-union workers and burned it to the ground.

The story comes to the stage with the premiere of “The Mill,” produced by the Workhaus Playwrights Collective and running April 20 through May 5 at the Playwrights Center, 2301 East Franklin Ave, Minneapolis. All shows start at 8:00 p.m. and all seats are Pay-What-You-Can.

Playwright Jeannine Coulombe grew up in International Falls and for her the story is personal, she said. “My father worked in the mill, my stepfather worked in the mill. My uncles worked in the mill. People I grew up with now work in the mill.”

The mill workers were union members and, in 1989, Coulombe added, they had been pressured by Boise Cascade to accept a concessionary contract with the promise of the plant expansion — and the threat of shutting the plant down.

The union conceded and the influx of non-union construction workers brought in by Alabama-based BE&K to build the mill expansion produced “ready-made conflict,” Coulombe said.

“The union and the issues surrounding it were the life I grew up with,” Coulombe told the Labor Review. In 1989, the year the play takes place, Coulombe was 19 years old and home from college for the summer.

She went on to earn her B.A. in history and B.F.A. in theatre from the University of Minnesota Duluth and her Masters degree in playwriting from the University of Iowa.

After 9-11 — like many writers, Coulombe observed — she returned to themes close to home.

“The world of the play is one I know and understand,” Coulombe said. “I know these characters and I know them as people.”

“The Mill” takes real-life events that took place over two years and condenses the action into one week. “I took a bit of dramatic license,” Coulombe noted.

She tells the story through the fictional McBride family— husband Marty, who has worked 36 years in the mill, wife Beth, and son Rick, who is home for the summer from his first year in college. “The whole play takes place in their backyard,” Coulombe divulged, following the structure of Marty McBride’s workday.

“This play has been 10 years in the making,” Coulombe reported. Unions and union issues now are very much in the news, she pointed out. “The political climate is in place. People are waking up…”

“I’m very much interested in how a larger economic and political structure affects everyday people,” Coulombe said. “That is what I write about.”

“I don’t see working class characters of the American stage very often,” she added. “I wanted to be true to the people I know and grew up with… Their story deserves to be told.”

The Playwrights Center’s production of “The Mill” is supported by a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council with funds from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.

One day, Coulombe said, she hopes to stage “The Mill” in International Falls.

For more information on performance dates for “The Mill,” or to reserve tickets, visit www.workhauscollective.org or call 1-800-838-3006. The schedule includes a special “Union Night” performance April 28 which will feature a post-play panel discussion led by Professor Peter Rachleff from Macalester College, a leading expert in the field of labor relations and labor history.