A Historic Mill is Closing in Wisconsin, but the Paper Industry is Humming

By Jeffrey Bonior
Jun 26 2022 |
The Day Street paper mill in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

There’s a healthy job market for experienced workers in Green Bay’s paper mills.

There’s an old saying that goes, “when one door closes, another door opens.”

It applies for the nearly 190 workers at the Georgia-Pacific Day Street paper mill in Green Bay, Wisconsin right now. Their jobs are being eliminated with the scheduled closing of a historic facility, but the local market is flush with jobs.

In early March, Georgia-Pacific announced it would be shutting down Green Bay’s oldest operating paper mill after 121 years of making paper products that included household brands as Northern and Quilted Northern bath tissues, Brawny and Sparkle paper towels, and Dixie napkins.

The mill is bringing its operations to a halt in three phases, the first of which took place three weeks ago when approximately 80 employees worked their last day at the Day Street mill. The No. 1 paper machine, which makes the paper for the mill’s one remaining product, Vanity Fair napkins, is scheduled to be shut down later this summer affecting 45 additional jobs. Another 25 workers will remain at the mill converting napkins until the complete shutdown in September 2023.

But unlike shutdowns in many other manufacturing industries, wherein a major production facility ceases operations and workers are left without local jobs that fit their skills, paper workers in Green Bay have a plethora of options to choose from. And some are as close as the plant right next door.

Some cities have what is called a “Restaurant Row.” Green Bay has a “Paper Mill Row.” A stone’s throw from the Day Street Mill is a Proctor & Gamble paper mill, and just to the other side of that plant is a new, state-of-the-art facility owned by Green Bay Packaging. And another of Georgia-Pacific’s four Green Bay-area paper operations, known as the Broadway Street mill, is just across the Fox River from its Day Street location.

And all these Green Bay paper mills are hiring. So the chances are very good the 190 furloughed Day Steet mill employees will quickly find comparable employment in the local paper-making industry. It’s a throwback to the heydays of American manufacturing when a Pittsburgh steelworker or Detroit autoworker could leave his job and easily find work at another nearby mill or plant, without having to face a period of unemployment.

Georgia-Pacific has offered jobs at its Broadway mill, which is currently undergoing a $500 million improvement and expansion, to most of its Day Street employees. Workers choosing to transfer to the Broadway mill, however, will lose their union representation. Paper workers at the Day Street mill are currently members of the United Steelworkers union (USW) but the Broadway mill workforce does not, and never has had, union representation.

Keith McKeefry is the USW Local 2-00213 president and has worked at the Day Street mill since 1983 when the facility had more than 1,200 employees. He was instrumental in negotiating the final contract at the mill, which provides bonuses of anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 to workers that stay on the job at Day Street until the final shutdown.

With the competition for labor at a premium in the Green Bay area, Georgia-Pacific has had to make sure it could maintain a workforce to take the plant through its closing days. Approximately 20% of its workforce left Day Street to work at competing mills not long after the impending closure was announced.

“Proctor & Gamble, which makes Charmin and is our competitor, is right next to us and is the only one in the Proctor & Gamble family that is union,” said McKeefry. “Green Bay Packaging, which just opened up a brand-new plant on the other side of Proctor & Gamble, is also a USW-represented plant. That’s where most of our maintenance mechanic people are going because they still are on double time on Sunday. We haven’t had double time on Sunday at Day Street for probably 15 years.

“The 50 people that didn’t transfer to the Broadway plant are probably going to be at a union plant right next door or just down the street. Old guys like me, we’re going out the door and we’re going to be retiring. And there are other people in that age group of 55 and older that are going to be able to retire and still collect their pension and get another job at a union plant with a separate pension program. It’s probably the best of both worlds for what is going on.”

Labor at a Premium

Wisconsin is known as America’s Dairyland, a state that is filled with “Cheeseheads” and fans of the legendary Green Bay Packers of the National Football League who play across town. But you can just as easily be called the epicenter of the United States papermaking industry as it’s home to more paper mills than any other state in America.

Paper is an $18 billion industry in Wisconsin, employing more than 30,000 workers at 34 mills, plus another 204 facilities that convert paper into other products according to a 2019 study. Factoring in other parts of the supply chain, including loggers and truckers, the industry grows to $28 billion and more than 95,000 workers.

“The market is really competitive so everyone is trying to take from everyone else. For the last couple of years we’ve been losing people to other mills because they get more vacation or better pay and some of the benefits may be better there. We’ve been taking people from them; they take people from us.”

Justin Williquette, USW Local 2-00213

Many of the paper-related companies in the Greater Green Bay area are non-union shops, but the presence of the USW at some of the bigger mills has helped raise the bar for wage compensation in the competition for experienced labor.

Justin Williquette is a millwright/pipefitter working foreman who has been working at the Day Street mill for six years. He’s the recording secretary for USW Local 2-00213 but will be transferring to the non-union Georgia-Pacific Broadway Mill when the Day Street location closes its doors permanently next year.

“I believe the union has helped the pay scale for all of the mills because they have to compete and the non-union places have to make sure they keep their wages high enough so that people will consider going there,” said Williquette. “My benefits will continue when I move to Broadway, but it will transition to non-union benefits. And [what] I’ll be keeping is my current wages.

“In the Green Bay area there’s no shortage of job openings between Proctor & Gamble, Green Bay Packaging and Georgia-Pacific. The market is really competitive so everyone is trying to take from everyone else. For the last couple of years we’ve been losing people to other mills because they get more vacation or better pay and some of the benefits may be better there. We’ve been taking people from them; they take people from us.”

Working the paper industry in Green Bay today is a good career problem to have since the skillset is in high demand and wages are competitive. As of May of this year, the unemployment rate in Wisconsin was 2.9%.

Mike Kawleski, the public affairs manager for Georgia-Pacific’s Green Bay operations, says the company hopes to attract as many of the Day Street employees as he can to the upgraded Broadway Mill or its nearby Packerland facility.

“At this point, all but a handful of people have already found jobs or have roles at some of our other facilities in town because we’ve got the Broadway Mill which is a huge operation and we still are recruiting people,” said Kawleski. “We want to keep our employees. They know their stuff; they’re professionals and have been doing it for decades in some cases. It could even be a third or fourth generation of people that have worked for the company, so we want to find roles for these folks.

“The market is setting the rates. There are so many places that folks can work in manufacturing in Northeast Wisconsin. If we don’t keep pace we’ll be in tough shape employment-wise.”

Many of the Day Street employees believe that Georgia-Pacific neglected to invest wisely in the mill and is running older equipment that could have been upgraded to continue operations.

Kawleski says that’s the not the case, even though Georgia-Pacific decided to build a new plant at the Broadway location and purchase a new, modern paper machine.

“Even at Broadway we’re running some assets that are pretty aged, but they’re still running well and that was certainly the case at Day Street,” said Kawleski. “Day Street does have some older assets. And when you take a look at other investments the company has made in other locations, you stack up Day Street with some of the other ones that have a better competitive picture, and it made business sense to wind down Day Street.”

121 Years

The Day Street mill opened in 1901 as the Northern Paper Mill and began manufacturing Northern Tissue in 1902. By 1920, Northern Paper Mills became the largest manufacturer of bath tissue in the world and Green Bay was soon to be known as the “Toilet Paper Capital of the World.”

In 1953, the mill became part of Marathon Corporation and four years later Marathon became a division of American Can Company. In 1982, American Can sold the mill to the James River Corporation and in 2000 Georgia-Pacific acquired it.

Georgia Pacific in turn was purchased by Koch Industries in 2005 and today it is a privately held, indirect, wholly owned subsidiary of that company.

The Koch family is notorious for its dustups with labor unions over the years and there was speculation that closing the Day Street mill was an uncomplicated way for Georgia-Pacific to eliminate the USW from representing its workers.

Kawleski says the mill’s union status had nothing to do with its closure, citing multi-million-dollar company investments in its unionized facilities.

“Day Street being union was not a factor in the decision to close it down,” he said. “Day Street mill’s financial picture just wasn’t as attractive as some other facilities.”

One fact that remains certain is that paper mills have driven the economy of Green Bay and Northeast Wisconsin for years. And unions have played a large part in the favorable landscape of paper mill workers.

As Green Bay mayor Eric Genrich told the Green Bay Press-Gazette: “The Day Street mill has been such an important part of our economy and heritage for 120-plus years. Papermaking really built this community and made it what it is today.”