When probably the most prominent labor leader in Chippewa Valley history died earlier this year, it marked the end of an era.
Milan “Mike” Stone, who grew up on a Rock Falls dairy farm, went to work at the former tire factory in Eau Claire at age 19 and eventually rose to be president of the 140,000-member United Rubber Workers International union, died March 3 in Akron, Ohio, at age 90. A celebration of his life was held last weekend in Rock Falls.
“It’s a sad day because he represented such a good time for organized labor and this is sort of the end of that time,” said Dennis Miller, a former Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. worker in Eau Claire who has become an unofficial plant historian.
After attending Eau Claire High School and serving in World War II, Stone worked at National Presto Industries in Eau Claire before taking a job at the city’s mammoth tire plant, where he began his life’s work of fighting for workers’ rights.
He quickly became involved in the URW Local 19 at the plant, serving as shop steward, special negotiator and URW district director before being appointed vice president of the international union in 1977. Stone led the former URW from 1981 to 1990.
Rags to riches
His election and rags-to-riches story was a big deal for his former co-workers at the Eau Claire plant.
Joe Sosnouski, Local 19 president in 1981, said at the time he was “elated” and “overjoyed” at Stone’s election. Sosnouski said the election of a president from such a relatively small local defied the odds and predicted it would never happen again.
“I was a little lucky and fate was good to me,” Stone told the Leader-Telegram during a visit to Eau Claire in 1982. “I never dreamed that I was going to have this job.”
Stone’s tenure as president came at a turbulent time for the U.S. tire industry, with the union enduring increasing demands from tire companies for contract concessions and dealing with plant closings in response to growing global competition. Finding the right balance of cooperation and confrontation had to be a tremendous challenge, and Stone sought to do the best he could for workers.
“Instead of building a union, we’re trying to preserve one. And that’s the case for nearly all the industrial unions in this country,” Stone told The Associated Press in 1987. “Preserving is not nearly as much fun as building. It’s tougher. You have to tell people that for their own good they may have to do things differently than they have been doing for 30 years, and nobody likes to hear that.”
Indeed, Stone endured criticism from some union members who wanted him to take a harder line in contract negotiations.
But Jack Zais, who was Local 19 president in the late 1980s, said Stone’s style was the result of serving during an era of declining union power — plant closings were the primary reason URW membership declined from 180,000 people in 1978 to 110,000 in 1990 and since has merged with the United Steelworkers of America.
“I would say Mike was probably the first president since the inception of the URW that advocated more peaceful means of settlements. He wasn’t hellbent on going on strikes,” Zais said last week. “But you have to take into context that the times dictate what kind of president you are going to be. ... When you lose the hammer, you’re not going to pound many nails.”
Stone reflected that approach when he told me in 1990 that he didn’t think Uniroyal Goodrich was bluffing when they threatened to close the Eau Claire plant in 1988. Calling a company’s bluff by taking a hard line “is a pretty big gamble when you’re dealing with people’s lives,” Stone said.
As it played out, workers at the Eau Claire plant were forced to accept extra concessions in 1988 in exchange for a three-year lease on life they hoped would be more. But Uniroyal Goodrich announced plans in 1991 to shutter the 75-year-old Eau Claire factory, which closed 26 years ago this month.
Through it all, Stone’s sister, Leatrice Solberg of Eau Claire, said last week, “Standing up for workers was always very important to him.”
Miller, for one, sees Stone’s death as symbolic.
“It’s a greater loss than just an individual,” Miller said. “It’s the loss of an idea.”
That idea is that workers are stronger together than they are as individuals, he said, maintaining that strong unions lead to better pay, benefits and protections for workers.
Unfortunately, Miller said, Stone’s loss is a sad reminder of how much power unions have lost since their heyday in the last century.
“This is a guy,” Miller said, “whose whole life was dedicated to the worker.”
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