BEAR WINS, EVERYBODY LOSES
“Bear Archery has won. The 180 strikers who had walked the picket line daily for more than 400 days have lost,” Jackie Bonkowski of the Gaylord Herald Times wrote. She went on, “Local 1903 president Gary Swanson said, ‘There is still a strong feeling of unity, and we are proud of what we stand for. But the courts have said we’re wrong for the time-being, and we’re willing to accept that.’” When Bonkowski asked Swanson about future plans, he replied, “We’re playing it by ear right now. But first we’re going to try approaching Kelly about the possibility of returning to work. In the meantime,” he added, “we’re going to keep the picket line. A lot right now depends upon what Kelly says.”
Bonkowski also reviewed some of the activities of the past year this way: “But the turmoil of the 11 months between appeal and final ruling has left a badly-shaken community with an uncertain future. On Sept. 4, 1976, at the height of the Labor Day weekend tourism, strikers shut down the Fred Bear Museum as the result of a mass picketing demonstration. The facility, which draws 150,000 visitors to the area annually, remained closed to the public for four months, until January 1977, when it reopened for the annual Grayling Winter Carnival.
“In October, 1976, the UAW announced a national boycott of Bear Archery products and those of all Victor Comptometer subsidiaries in an attempt to force the company to the bargaining table.
“November was a month which demonstrated that UAW Local 1903 was a power to be reckoned with,” Bonkowski wrote. “The clout of their intensive campaign to unseat local incumbents proved successful, and election results showed that all union-backed candidates had won.”
In January Kelly announced a feasibility study regarding the relocation of Bear Archery from Grayling to a community outside of Michigan. Most of the places being looked at were in Florida, such as Lake City, Ocala, Gainesville and a couple of others. Now most local people naturally assumed that the strike was the driving force behind this feasibility study, but that was not really the case. When I left the Bear Archery advertising agency in Indiana in late 1971 and moved to Grayling, Kelly warned me that the company did not know how much longer it would be able to stay in Grayling. He wanted me to know that I could not count on living in Grayling for very long if the business climate in Michigan didn’t improve and if Bear Archery’s situation didn’t improve.
At the time Bear Archery’s labor rate was a full $2 an hour higher than our competitors in the archery industry. This meant we had to charge higher prices for our products. Of course, we tried to justify this based upon the higher quality that Fred insisted be built into our product. But it still made us the highest-priced product out there. Another factor was the limited number of shipping options out of the Grayling area. There was only one truck line serving the factory in those days, as I recall, and we even ran our own group of 18-wheelers with Bear Archery logos on the side.
But don’t take my word for it about the business climate in Michigan at the time. Here’s what Elliot M. Estes, president of General Motors said in February 1976, just before some of our Bear employees went out on strike.
The question is: Can General Motors afford to expand in Michigan when it already costs more to do business here than in most states where we operate? And why are costs higher in Michigan? … When and where GM finally expands will be decided on straightforward, objective business considerations. We do not play games with either our employees’ jobs or our stockholders’ money. … Worker’s compensation currently costs Michigan business about $600 million a year. Legislation currently being considered may very well increase that to $1.2 billion annually.
Opposition to the proposed measures has been virtually unanimous on the part of all business in the state-not just the larger employers, but equally important the small businessman. Some have testified that they either already have or are in the process of reducing their operations in Michigan. Some 71 percent of GM’s total national worker’s comp benefits are paid in Michigan although only 44 percent of our employees are in the state.
Naturally, when the UAW struck companies like Bear Archery they liked to portray it as a case of the little guy against the big impersonal corporation. You might be interested in knowing that at the time of the Bear Archery strike, the UAW had hundreds of thousands of members just in Michigan alone. And, in total, the UAW, as of 1972, the latest figures available at the time of our strike, had 1.5 million members. They allegedly had paid $196 million into their strike fund with a balance as of that date of $43 million. Their general fund at that time reportedly amounted to $58 million. At the same time, in all of its divisions Victor Comptometer, Bear’s parent company, only had 5,978 employees and in 1975 their sales were down $31 million (13 percent) and they had a net loss of $6.2 million.
The UAW leaders’ northern Michigan “retreat” was not too far from Grayling at Black Lake. And to cope with the declining UAW membership due to the incursion of the Japanese into the American automotive market and other factors, it was pretty common knowledge that the UAW had adopted a strategy of going outside its normal labor pool for members. We were told that they had targeted a number of companies in northern Michigan for membership, Bear Archery being one of them. In reality, Bear Archery was the “David” fighting the huge UAW “Goliath,” and tiny Bear Archery eventually won.
WALL STREET WEIGHS IN
But it was a very costly battle for all involved on both sides. Here’s how the prestigious Wall Street Journal reported on the UAW strike against Bear Archery.
The Wall Street Journal, Thursday, June 30, 1977
Strike Is Traumatic For A Quiet Village In Michigan Woods
Dispute at Bear Archery Co. Splits Families, Neighbors, Even
Affects the Children
By John R. Emshwiller, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
GRAYLING, Mich-“This has always been a lovely, comfortable place to live,” says Emil Kraus, a town judge and owner of several stores here. But now the air is thick with hostility.
Norman Johnson, for instance, is furious at his son Lee. “As far as I’m concerned, he could be starving and I wouldn’t throw him a piece of bread,” says the elder Mr. Johnson. The reason: There’s a strike going on at Bear Archery Co., Grayling’s leading business. Lee joined it; his father, an 18-year veteran of the plant, didn’t.
The dispute at Bear probably won’t earn even a footnote in the annals of labor struggles. Despite some fistfights, a number of slashed automobile tires and a prodigious pile of unprintable insults, it hardly qualifies as a violent conflict. The strikers only number about 175, and the company, although the nation’s biggest maker of bows and arrows, isn’t exactly an industrial giant. Annual sales total less than $25 million. Moreover, nonunion workers have kept the plant humming throughout the year-long walkout.
But the strike is tearing at the fabric of this community of 2,100 in the northern Michigan woods. Bear is by far the biggest employer and is a prominent institution here, where tourism, hunting and fishing are the other notable activities. This is the first major labor confrontation in the town’s 105-year history, and many fear that it has broken, perhaps permanently, the small-town harmony on which Grayling long has prided itself.
Carrying the Battle
Families have been split as strikers watched relatives troop through the picket lines to work. Lifelong friends don’t speak to each other. The children have carried the battle into the schools. And people with friends on one side or the other find their loyalties torn.
“I’m afraid the strike is going to leave permanent scars,” Judge Kraus says.
In big cities, conflicts between impersonal business organizations and professionally run labor unions are more or less a part of the economic landscape. But labor strife in the closely knit, easygoing community of Grayling has produced emotional and wrenching personal experiences for everyone involved.
And almost everyone is involved, in one way or another. “Stay here three hours and you can meet everyone in town,” promises Whitey Madsen, publisher of the Crawford County Avalanche. And, indeed, in the course of an afternoon, visitors in a steady stream drop by the cluttered back printing room of the Avalanche to chat or help themselves to a cold beer from the refrigerator.
Grayling isn’t exactly a backwater. The interstate highway put through a decade ago brought tourists, followed by a Holiday Inn, a McDonald’s hamburger shop, a shopping mall and even some crime, chiefly a rash of break-ins at vacant vacation cottages.
But people apparently weren’t prepared for radical change at the town’s biggest business. When Fred Bear, now 75 and semi-retired, moved here 30 years ago and started his company, the archery firm was run more as a family enterprise than a hard-boiled business.
Living in a Tent
Times were hard. Mr. Bear was so poor for a while that he lived in a tent. His workers helped out by not cashing their checks at various times until Mr. Bear had enough money in the bank to cover them. Even after the firm was prosperous and Mr. Bear had won a reputation as a big-game hunter, his workers still took their grievances directly to him.
But, in 1968, Mr. Bear sold the company to Victor Comptometer Corp., a big Chicago-based maker of business machines and recreational products. Victor changed Bear from a small, specialty bow maker to a large-scale retail supplier. There were efficiency studies, production quotas and new work rules.
The workers bridled. “They just kept upping production until you couldn’t keep up,” says Betty Sajdak, one of the strikers.
Robert Kelly, executive vice president and chief operating officer-and a 15-year veteran who began at Bear long before the takeover-counters that the company simply was introducing production methods that are standard in modern industry. “This used to be a small bow-and-arrow shop, but now it’s a big business and we have to worry about things like cost and returns on investment,” he says.
The workers produced an equally modern response: They signed up with a big-time union, the United Auto Workers. The strike began in April 1976, after management had refused to bargain with the UAW, contending that the workers’ affiliation vote hadn’t been conducted legally-a point still in dispute in the courts.
The union had hoped for a quick victory. But some 40 workers refused to walk out. And, with unemployment in the area then at 13 percent, management had little trouble filling the 150 or so jobs vacated by the strikers (at pay of $4.25 an hour).
Some union members argued that the plant should be closed forcibly. Cooler heads prevailed, and the long legal battle ensued. In the meantime, strikers and nonstrikers settled into Grayling-style trench warfare.
Zeroing in on the nonstrikers, union members produced leaflets providing definitions of the word “scab”: among other things, “a two-legged creature with a corkscrew soul, a water brain,” and a heart full of “rotten principles.”
Attached to that piece of paper were the names of dozens of workers at the Bear plant. Feelings began to rise. Joan Rasmussen, vice president of the union, says that since the strike began, she hasn’t spoken to her best friend or one of her nephews, both of whom stayed on the job.
Pat Kucharek, another union member, says she went over the invitation list for her daughter’s wedding to weed out “scabs.” Nor is the bitterness confined to one side. Brad Hatfield, whose family includes more than a dozen Bear workers still on the job, says he has stopped going to some favorite fishing areas and the local bowling alley because union members are there.
Down the Generations
The animosity even has touched children. Roger Ahrns, a plant supervisor, says his 12-year-old son has been beaten up at school by children of strikers. For a while the Ahrnses were driving the child and his brother to school. “They were afraid to walk,” Mr. Ahrns says.
Random acts of violence have become a headache. Bear officials say the company has paid more than $2,000 to replace employees’ auto tires damaged on company property. Many residents now routinely check their driveways for nails: one man says he has collected about 600 of them.
“This stuff may sound minor,” Mr. Hatfield says, “but the tension is breaking up this town.”
Literally, in some cases. Betty Sampsel, a lifelong resident who had worked at the plant for eight years, has her house on the market and plans to move to Florida, partly because of the strike. One son has joined her on the picket lines while another continues to work at Bear. The boys, she says, rarely speak to each other now.
Amid the trauma, however, shreds of small-town civility remain, as in the “arrest” procedure used in the nearly 100 misdemeanor complaints sworn out so far in the dispute. Police simply telephone the union or the company, whichever is appropriate, leaving word for the person charged to stop by the station house when it is convenient.
“These people are friends, and we don’t want to embarrass them,” police chief Peter Stephan explains. “So far, people have been very good about coming in.”
A Delicate Balance
Local officials like Chief Stephan are having to steer a tactful course to remain neutral. The local prosecutor and the county sheriff were unseated in last year’s election, at least partly because of union opposition. Merchants are feeling the pressure, too. “It’s hard when you have friends on both sides and don’t want to play favorites,” says Douglas Wilson, manager of a local grocery store (one of whose cashiers quit because of the pressures of dealing with strikers and nonstrikers).
The whole experience is clearly painful for Mr. Bear. “You know, I never wanted the company to grow this big,” he says, adding that the strikers “made a bad mistake going out.” Mr. Bear’s stature has largely spared him from criticism by strikers so far.
Despite the union’s yearlong struggle, its chances of winning the strike seem to be dimming. A federal court recently upheld the company’s contention that the union election was flawed. If the UAW doesn’t win a reversal on appeal, the strikers may have to end their walkout and look for new jobs.
Or things may come to a more ironic end. The company says it seriously is studying the possibility of moving the entire operation to the Southern U.S. where costs are lower. Officials say this isn’t related to the strike, but many local people think otherwise.
A move would be a grievous blow to the local economy. But it might be the only way to restore tranquility to Grayling.
This Wall Street Journal article was the “nice version” of what went on in Grayling. As the company’s public information officer I was in a unique position, as were the other members of our strike committee, our security people, and the state and local law enforcement people in the community to know what really went on.
UGLY IMAGES IN GRAYLING
During just the first 130 days of the strike Bill McIntosh and I took more than 5,700 photographs of strike-related activity on the picket line, as well as of damage done by the strikers elsewhere throughout the community against the Bear Archery employees who had stayed with the company. These were to be used in court injunction cases. Of those 5,700 photos we made 2,230 enlargements for use with law enforcement, our attorneys and court officials. Due to our isolated location in the small town of Grayling we already had built a photography darkroom in “The Swamp,” so that we did not have to travel all the way to Traverse City 50 miles away to have our product photographs taken. This darkroom was a major asset when the strike occurred.
We also exposed 1,000 feet of 16mm movie film during that same time and we videotaped crossings with some early videotaping equipment.
Once the UAW notified the company that it intended to strike, I met with the Grayling city manager and police chief, on behalf of the company and at Fred and Kelly’s request, to notify them of the impending strike so they could make the necessary plans to monitor the situation in any way required for the health and safety, not only of our working employees, but also for the strikers as well, many of whom were longtime friends. Their picket line would be located on the busiest highway into and out of Grayling, M-72 West. I also hand-delivered press releases to city officials, the sheriff, the local newspaper, The Avalanche, and our small local radio station, WGRY, so that they might know of company decisions and actions prior to public announcements in order that they might be prepared to cover any eventualities.
Earlier, following the employee vote to affiliate with the UAW, I was asked to conceive and write four full-page company advertisements that ran in our local weekly newspaper, The Avalanche. One covered our payroll of $5.5 million a year in the Grayling area and our hourly rates. Another covered Crawford County’s history (where Bear Archery was located), another our five-year wage adjustment history (this one featured a 25-year-old Fred Bear and told of his struggle to start the company and keep it here in Grayling), another covered “Why Bear Wants To Stay in Town.”
Then, once the strike started, I conceived and wrote four more ads that ran in the month following the walk-out. One covered our dealers and competitors and the affect a strike could have on the survival of Bear Archery. Another was a Bear Archery strike diary to give the community some idea of the harassment the company’s working employees were enduring, another included an employee-written letter, and a fourth covered questions to strikers. The UAW countered in all that time with just one ad titled “Judge for Yourself.”
SPINNING THE STRIKE
Here’s the Bear Archery ad copy that ran on May 18, 1976, the same day the UAW’s ad ran. I’ve added a few explanatory comments for you in parentheses:
BEAR ARCHERY STRIKE DIARY…
April 25, 1976 (one day after the strike started) 9:20 a.m.-Butch Anderson’s wife, Jean, received a telephone threat saying the union would get Butch and 16 others and their families and that they were watching their kids at school.
April 27, 1976-Norm Johnson’s wife received a threat by telephone on Norm’s life.
April 28, 1976-Bob Ahrns had four telephone calls last night, last one at 2:30 a.m. Two union members trespass on Bear Archery property to threaten Victor truck driver.
April 29, 1976-Julia Kroll received two telephone threats last night at 11 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. (This was not in the ad, but Julia Kroll was Fred Bear’s stepdaughter, and lived in the house right next door to Fred and Mrs. B on the backwaters. Needless to say, this incursion on his family and home life really upset Fred, and the strikers lost a lot of ground with him because of it.)
May 6, 1976-Bill Sampsel was followed home by four union members who then drove around his house three or four times before leaving.
May 7, 1976-Four union members followed Warren Hatfield after he picked up Linda Hiveley. Two strikers followed Bill Sampsel down from Frederic. The Crawford County Federal Credit Union received a telephone call that there was a bomb at Bear Archery. Hiveley’s were followed home and a threat was shouted “Have a good weekend, don’t be afraid.”
May 8, 1976-At 2:30 a.m. Linda Hiveley’s car was damaged with the word “Scab” painted on it and sugar poured into the gas tank. Lynn Trudeau’s new home and car were damaged with paint. Word “Scab” painted on car. Probably sugar in gas tank. Grace Feldhauser’s home damaged with word “Scab” painted on it in two places. Dick Trudeau received a telephone threat at the bank threatening bodily harm to him and his family if Lynn does not stop coming to work. A high-pitched woman’s voice.
May 10, 1976-Mary Siebel was followed home last night and later received two threatening telephone calls.
These are your friends, relatives and neighbors who are being threatened. And this includes none of the verbal daily abuse and threats that some of our striking pickets are making as our employees come and go. We deplore these strong-arm tactics, but recognize them, because we have been told to expect them. In spite of all these threats, the people mentioned above and many more are continuing to come to work. They are exercising their right to work and to earn a living here in Grayling.
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