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In Memoriam: Sister Cindy Bennett (UPIU 14)

Andy O’Brien
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We send our heartfelt condolences to the family of former United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU) Local 14 member Cindy Bennett, who recently passed away. Bennett took part in the 1987-88 International Paper Strike in Jay and was a proud, feisty union woman. She loved and deeply cared about her union brothers and sisters and will be sorely missed in our movement.

"Cindy may had gruff exterior but she had a heart of gold," said Bennett's friend Linda Deane, who is President of the Western Maine Labor Council.  "She was a passionate person about her local and democracy and she’s going to be missed."

Bennett was one of the first women to work at International Paper’s Otis Mill on the Jay/Livermore line in 1976 before moving on to work at IP’s paper mill in Jay a few months later.  There had been some women who worked as cutters when there was a labor shortage at the mill and another woman who worked as a cleaner before Bennett arrived, but very few others. In an interview with the Maine Memory Network in 2017, she recalled consulting the Maine Human Rights Commission before she applied for the job and planned to file a complaint if she wasn't hired. But fortunately she didn't have to.

“When I first started I felt that I had to prove I could do the job and that I was as good as anybody else,” she said. "Then they saw that I was good at what I did."

Bennett started as a cleaner, but hated the job, especially cleaning up after men “who were quite messy at times.” When she applied to work at the flash dryer, she recalls being “set up” to do a job that was too hard for her and that other men didn’t have to do. But she insisted, “I can do anything a man can do who is my size and my capability.” 

Eventually she got a job working at a paper machine wrapping large, 15-inch diameter paper rolls and crimping them by hand. She loved driving a fork truck. At times she was hazed by her coworkers but she also loved them dearly and always got them back.

When it looked like Local 14 was going on strike in 1987, Bennett and her late husband, Rick Rush Jr., bought a new freezer, stocked it with food and curbed all unnecessary spending. They didn’t know they would end up being on strike for a year and a half.

“Right, wrong or indifferent, I supported my union,” she told the Maine Memory Network interviewers. “Unions aren’t perfect, but they’re only as good as the people are. It all depends on the people who want to be involved.”

Bennett and her husband were heavily involved in the strike and did what they could to support other families on strike. Deane recalled traveling all over New England with Bennett speaking at rallies and at union halls about the strike.

"Wherever we went, Cindy was a very powerful speaker, even though she didn’t think she was," said Deane. "She always spoke from her heart."

Deane recalled the Maine union workers received a lot of support from the local LGBTQ community in Boston and the "labesians," as Bennett called them, gave the women a place to stay while they were in Boston.

"They were the people who stood up and stood behind us," said Deane. "We had long days. We’d come home from setting up some major rally and and just wash our clothes and repack them because we knew we would be sent to Rhode Island or Massachusetts at another local the next day."

Bennett said one one of the reasons the workers called off the strike was to protect jobs for union members. Bennett never forgave the scabs and super scabs who crossed the picket line during the strike. She painfully recalled a scab bringing a cake to the union hall after the strike to celebrate.

“He was being a smart ass. ‘Ha ha ha. We won,’” said Bennett. “I will never forget his face and I still remember to this day the first scab who was hired and the first scab who called for the decert vote.”

Bennett continued to pay dues to keep the union up after the strike. In 1990, she was hired back to work at the Jay mill and work alongside many of the scabs who helped break the strike. Unfortunately, the scabs who made up the majority the workforce voted to decertify the union n 1992. Bennet wasn’t shy about telling them about what she thought of them.

“There were some scabs that didn’t like me and they said, ‘She did this. She did that. She didn’t treat me nice,’” Bennett told her interviewers. “I got turned into the boss many times but I never got fired. I was very vocal about my union beliefs. I always believed in my union and that might have been held against me.”

Eventually, Bennett began working in the motor storage department taking care of electric motors. She was making a good wage of $17 an hour when she went on strike and by the time she retired from the non-union Jay Mill 28 years later in 2015, she was making four dollars more an hour.

“When I retired, I saw this [scab] wanted to shake my hand,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I can’t shake your hand. I can’t forget what you did to me and my union.’ Life goes on. I move on. But I used to say, ‘You want a job? Apply for it the way I had to. Don’t take somebody else’s job. Don’t cross a picket line because you’re branded for life in my book.’”

In her 2017 interview, Bennett mourned the loss of so many paper jobs in Maine and how things had changed at the mill. When she worked there, skilled craftsmen knew just by the sound of a machine what was happening. They could hit a roll of paper and tell if it was winding correctly or what was wrong.

“It’s not like it was when I worked there. The specialty craft people aren’t there,” she said. “We had the paper makers who were incredible, like the back tender, the machine tender, who worked on that job and they knew the craft. But now they’re diversified and they go anywhere in the mill.”

She never forgot the incredible solidarity her union brothers and sisters showed during the strike and never missed an opportunity to tell younger workers about how Maine workers stood up against the largest paper company in the world. She was very pleased when the Western Maine Labor Council purchased the Local 14 hall with plans to turn it into its headquarters and a center for labor history and learning.

"She was so excited that we were doing something with the old union hall and that we had plans to prepare  some labor education for the high school down the road," said Deane. "It was something that she always talked about and how we needed that in the area."

Bennett was in attendance at an exhibit commemorating the Jay strike in January and said a few words about her experiences. A few years ago, Bennett turned over all her papers from the strike to Maine’s Paper and Heritage Museum in Livermore Falls.

“I loved my union people,” she once told the Lewiston Sun Journal. “Good people, hard working people. We worked hard. We played hard. And that’s gone. We always helped each other.”