Cloquet Mill One of Two Major Wooden Matchmakers Left In U.S.
CLOQUET, Minn. (AP) _ The impact of disposable cigarette lighters on the wooden match business is painfully obvious to Don Bronikowski when the night shift arrives at the match plant where he’s worked for 33 years.
″We were geared up years ago to make matches until hell freezes over. Three shifts, five days a week,″ says Bronikowski of Diamond Brands Inc., one of only two large-scale wooden matchmakers left in the United States. ″Now we’re down to one shift, five days a week.″
So instead of cranking out the familiar strike-anywhere splints, Diamond’s second-shift workers spend the night making corn dog sticks, ice pop sticks, toothpicks, tongue depressors and other small products.
Diamond and Universal Match Co., of Kenner, La., the only other major wooden matchmaker in the United States, survived the early 1970s onslaught of disposable lighters by closing plants and consolidating manufacturing.
The growing popularity of electric stoves and foreign-made wooden matches also have taken away business, but throwaway lighters took by far the biggest cut, reducing the wooden match’s 50 percent market share to about 20 percent.
″When Bic and Cricket (lighters) and all them came out they raised hell with the market,″ said Bronikowski, 57, who is quality control manager. ″Our business just went down, down, down.″
Industry watchers estimate about 650 billion wooden matches are used annually in the United States. Lighters control about 65 percent of the market, while book matches and other sources account for the remainder, Bronikowski said.
From peak employment of about 450 in the 1950s when the Cloquet plant made matches only, the Diamond workforce shrank to slightly more than 100 in the mid-1970s. Thanks to diversification, the plant today employs 325 people.
At least seven wooden matchmakers have closed their doors in recent years, Bronikowski said.
Universal, a subsidiary of Stockholm-based Swedish Match Corp., has closed a book match plant in Hudson, N.Y. Diamond has closed two plants in Maine.
Irene Rudnicki, a plant supervisor who has been active in the employees’ union, said the Cloquet plant survived partly because the union agreed to major wage concessions for new employees. About 60 percent of the workers at Cloquet are women and wages range from $5.97 to $10.60 an hour.