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Match mill employees try to plan for the future

Cloquet's Labor Temple was a somber place Monday, as between 30 and 40 employees from Cloquet's longtime match and toothpick factory gathered to discuss last week's announcement that the factory will be closing.

Owner Newell Brands made the announcement a week ago, acknowledging that 85 people will lose their jobs because the brand of products they make in Cloquet were sold, but the facility wasn't.

Monday's meeting was an effort to get accurate information out to the employees, said Steve Petoletti, president of the United Steel Workers (USW) Local 970 union at the match mill. Petoletti and other USW officials were joined by staff representatives from U.S. Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar's offices, as well as someone from U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan's office, as the group tried to provide answers and advice to the employees.

"We can't talk in the plant, but people hear a lot of news on the floor," said Petoletti. "We're trying to settle people down, trying to help them keep perspective and figure out how to operate under this stress while we answer any questions we can."

The Cloquet plant produces Diamond matches and toothpicks, a business that Newell — which acquired Jarden Home Brands about a year ago — sold last month to Georgia-based Royal Oak Enterprises LLC. The new owners of the brand bought the equipment, but decided not to take the more than 100-year-old Cloquet facility as part of the deal.

Newell told employees they could have up to six months of work before the plant closes, so much of the discussion Monday centered on what will happen between then and now.

People need to take care of each other, Franken Field Rep. Peter Makowski told the room. Makowski lost his job in 2001 when LTV Mining Company shut down, so he spoke from experience.

"If a normally chatty co-worker is suddenly quiet, something is wrong," he said. "Right now you're thinking about bills, but you also need to watch out for your co-workers and yourselves. I know you're mad at the company, but don't do anything stupid. Don't jeopardize yourselves. And work safely."

There are programs for displaced workers, Klobuchar outreach director Ida Rukavina told the room.

"The state will set up as many individual meetings as they can," she said, explaining that the goal is to let each employee know what his or her options are.

There is a severance article in the employee contract, with pay determined by years of service.

For some, that adds up to a lot of years.

Tom Roberts has worked at the plant for more than 44 years, after starting unofficially when he was 17 and still a high school student.

Harvey Willoughby has been there 32 years.

"I'm one of the junior ones," Willoughby said. "There's quite a few with 40-plus years."

Carol Peterson would have celebrated 29 years in November. There were more than 300 people working there when she started.

"I'm going to miss my job," Peterson said. "I liked it. You make a lot of friends, pick on the management. It's been a nice place to work."

Of the 68-70 local USW members, roughly 45 have 17 or more years of service, said Todd Hautajarvi, a union representative.

Petoletti said the union and Newell Brands are meeting for effect bargaining talks May 15-16 and he hopes to have a lot more answers for employees after those negotiations.

For now, people are encouraged to work hard and safe, and allow things to unfold. The various politicians and city and state officials are working to get them as much help as possible.

"You can see it in their faces. They're in shock," said Makowski.