Amid economic angst, International Falls looks back at labor unrest

Residents of International Falls, Minn., beset by concerns that the economy-driving paper mill in town has a precarious future,  are nonetheless  taking a gutsy look at the past this weekend. They are hosting two performances of “The Mill,” a play that is a fictional treatment of some tense and violent times in town 25 years ago.

Produced by Workhaus Collective of Minneapolis, the play is set during a week-long heat wave that coincides with a union-breaking attempt by a big employer, focusing on how one family is swept up in the community drama.

Rethinking a Company Town

The Mill is a play based on 1989 labor unrest in International Falls.

The play, written by International Falls native Jeannine Coulombe, was performed in Minneapolis two years ago. Ward Merrill, executive director of the Backus Community Center in International Falls, saw the play with his wife, Linda, at the Playwrights’ Center and determined to bring it to the town that inspired it.

The center, which has an auditorium that seats nearly 1,000, received State Arts Board backing to bring the play in. The eight-member cast is mostly the same as the one two years ago.

In 1989, Boise Cascade, the town’s dominant employer, announced plans for an expansion but brought non-union labor to town to build it, setting off an acrimonious and sometimes violent confrontation. You don’t have to scratch very hard to know that the ensuing riot and arrests are still on a lot of people’s minds in International Falls, particularly after the mill cut more than 200 jobs in 2013.

“I think (the labor unrest) caused a lot more strife among people than I realized,” said Merrill, who didn’t live in International Falls in 1989. “I hope (the play) doesn’t open any old wounds. I’m hoping it helps make people understand. We live on the edge of economic disaster up here and I hope it makes people realize we’re all in the same boat.”

When the play was produced in Minneapolis, Coulombe told MPR News’ reporter Marianne Combs, “These are fictional characters but I can’t say that I don’t know them. This is the most personal play I’ve written.”

Coulombe will join in audience discussions each evening after the performances, Merrill said. She is also discussing the play with classes at Falls High School.

The play isn’t the only work of literature inspired by the unrest. International Falls author Mary Casanova wrote “Riot,” a young readers’s novel that has been reprinted in recent months.

The performances are at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For information, call 218-285-7225.