Poof Tardiff: 1978 Converse Strike

Hello fellow Berlinites. I had to take a break from the year 1978 to talk about the strike at Converse Rubber Company that eventually wiped out about 1,100 jobs. These are jobs that to date (2017) have never been replaced. Some people will differ with me, but this was the news from August 23, 1978 in the local paper. Some would also probably say even if there was no strike Converse would have departed.

As the strike lingered on to more than 40 days, the Chamber of Commerce took a stand. “Could Berlin survive without Converse,” were the headlines. We have all survived changes. The death of a loved one, a car crash, a disabling illness, even a house burned to the ground.

If the 42-day old strike against Converse Rubber Company in the summer of 1978 resulted in Converse moving to Maine or Massachusetts, Berlin would still be here and it would survive. It would probably be harder to sell your home. Taxes would go up and it would end the possibility of a new industry coming to to town if Converse were driven away. There would also be more vacant stores on Main Street and more people would be forced to move away, especially the younger generation. Sadly, this sure sounds familiar.

As we approached the mid 1970s our population dropped from 19,000 to 15,000 people. Without Converse it could drop to 12,000.

People were wondering in August of 1978 if Converse’s leaving was a possibility. The Berlin Chamber of Commerce investigated this question. In fact, unless a compromise between Local 75 and Converse was made within the following week, Converse's leaving would not be a question, but just another chapter in Berlin’s rich, but abrasive history.

It was common knowledge on the streets of this city years ago that top union officials stated that 80 percent of the people in in Berlin wanted Converse to leave. The Chamber believed that these were just idle words, but the union officials had picket line posters reinforcing this.

Converse was taking the officials seriously and some lines of the company had already moved out to other plants, never to return. Joe Couhie said publicly that the Converse work force, which once numbered nearly 1,200 was down to 600 and would drop again to less than 400 workers, even if the strike were settled immediately.

The Converse building was rented and Converse did not own it. This could be understood that in short notice, they could pack up, and the building would never to be filled again. According to Mr. Couhie, the last offer was their final one. They didn’t want to leave, but they would have to curtail their operation considerably if the strike continued. This company had backed these statements, with both physical and personnel changes.

Over 40 years previous, the International Paper Company did just that. They closed their doors and pulled out of town because of constant strikes. Six hundred families were left without any breadwinners.

50 percent of the Granite State’s management and supervisory personnel had been temporarily laid off or transferred. No businessman in his or her right mind would ask for that kind of trouble again.

The Chamber asked why there was no business waiting to take the Granite State's place? It all boiled down to two basic considerations, the cost of doing business in the North Country and the absolute necessity of making a profit on the products that must sell at competitive prices.

Continuing with the newspaper article, Edgar Dean, the man in charge of Brown Company’s Berlin-Gorham operations, illustrated the difficulties faced by an industry that might wish to locate here.

If he were thinking of locating a business here in the late 1970s, he would have compiled pluses and minuses, being hard pressed to find the pluses like transportation, energy and climate to mention a few. If we were to lose Converse, then we would be hard pressed to see another industry of that magnitude replace it.

Sure, Berlin would survive and it has, but we would all suffer, because more than 600 Converse jobs would be at stake. Other people's jobs would be at stake also, if they worked at a downtown store, beauty shop, or were employed by any business where Converse workers spent a pay check.

Everything was connected and if 42 more days went by before ending the strike, then, it could easily be too late and Converse would be gone. As directors of the Chamber of Commerce, speaking with united voice, they urged both sides to sit down and end the strike.

I don’t believe that this letter to the newspaper was a scare tactic for the Converse workers. It was simply stating the facts and possibilities that eventually did take place.

In less than a week, the strike between Converse and its employees had ended. Members of United Paper Workers International Local 75 voted on September 1, 1978, to accept the company’s latest three year contract by an overwhelming 454-17.

The ratification vote broke the deadlock which had kept the company’s plant idle for seven long weeks. Everybody, except a few were glad that it was over.

There was no general consensus that the total settlement had been worth fighting for, but most of the workers agreed that they now had a good package deal all around. Factory manager Joseph Couhie said by the time the news was put into print, the workers were back on the job.

He did think that the level of production after the strike would be the same as before it began. Couhie also said that the plant would be opening on a one shift basis and that some might not be called back ever.

Local 75 President Edward Ferrari and Business Agent Ronald Croteau also expressed satisfaction with the company’s offer and said that they were glad the strike was concluded.

A summery of all the offers that were finally accepted by the ratification vote were listed and there certainly were no winners. When all was said and done in the summer of 1978 strike in Berlin, the Converse Shoe Company pulled up stakes and left four months later. Three years afterwards Bass Shoe would buy the building and operate until 1987.

So, the summer of 1978 was disastrous for the “City that Trees Built” and after Bass Shoe left, the building stood empty for thirty years. Now (2017), there is just a foundation where once stood a busy company that employed almost 1,200 workers.

I will continue with the history of 1978 I my next writing.

Poof Tardiff writes a weekly column for The Berlin Daily Sun. Questions or comments email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Also, join the many fans of “Once upon a Berlin Time” on Facebook and guess at the posted mystery pictures.

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