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Native View: More lost than jobs with close of match factory

A match is a simple moment: a flick of a hand, some phosphorus, and hope is kindled. Ishkodeke: the making of fire.

Winona LaDukeI have this great sadness in my heart over the closure of the Diamond Match company in Cloquet. It's sort of irrational in a way, the closure of a match company, but to me it's symbolic of the choices we make in labor and jobs and how we think.

Its demise announced in May, the company, which employed 85 people and began in l905, was a Cloquet anchor for more than 100 years. New Jersey-based Newell Brands sold it to Georgia-based Royal Oak Enterprises, which closed it.

This is one of my problems with absentee ownership: I really feel that big corporations are often not accountable to the people who make things happen — like the workers. Well, put it this way: A 2014 report found that the average pay ratio of a corporate CEO-to-a median worker was 204-to-1.

Back to matches. At peak production back in the 1940s, some 600 people worked at the Cloquet factory. It makes sense. Wood is renewable and plentiful in our north woods. These days, 85 folks were working there. But those were 85 paychecks for Cloquet.

"The announcement came as a shock to employees," the News Tribune and Cloquet Pine Journal reported. "Steve Petoletti, president of the United Steel Workers Local 970 union at the match mill, said workers arrived for their shifts at 7 a.m. Monday and were told to go to the cafeteria for a meeting, where they learned the facility would be closing its doors sometime over the next six months.

"'After they were done, they said they would pay us for the day and let the day and afternoon shifts go home,' Petoletti said Tuesday. 'They understood it was pretty drastic news. But everyone was back to work today.'"

My problem is more than just the jobs; it's the quality of our economy. At some level a match represents, to me, something simple and elegant — a simple moment, a flick of a hand, some phosphorus, and hope is kindled. Ishkodeke. A Bic lighter is some plastic.

That's problem No. 2 with this. This summer, the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances completed the first global analysis of all plastics ever made — and their fate. The journal found that of the approximately 9 billion tons of plastic produced, around 7 billion tons became waste. Of that, only 9 percent was recycled. The vast majority, 79 percent, is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter. Meaning, at some point, much of it ends up in the oceans, the final sink.

Every time I go to an Enbridge pipeline hearing, someone has to say that, "We need plastics." It turns out that plastic manufacturing has doubled roughly every 15 years and has outpaced nearly every other man-made material. Consider this: Half of all steel produced is used in construction, with a decades-long lifespan. Half of all plastic manufactured becomes trash in less than a year — and takes 400 years to biodegrade.

So, at some level, this match versus the Bic thing is really a big problem not only to me but to the environment. I'd like to see Cloquet, or maybe the Fond du Lac Band, keep that match factory going.

I like matches. They're simple, elegant, and easy on the environment. Those 85 jobs were good jobs and represent 85 more long-term jobs than a Line 3 oil-pipeline replacement will give Carlton County.

Winona LaDuke lives on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. She has written six books on environmental and Native American issues and is executive director of Honor the Earth (, a national Native American environmental foundation.