A Paper Mill’s Closing Hits Home for This AAM Staffer

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
The Bucksport Paper Mill | Photo by Joshua Gatts via Flickr

The Bucksport Paper Mill is scheduled to permanently cease operations on Dec. 1, 2014.

When the Verso Paper Corp. announced on Oct. 1 that it would shut down its paper mill in Bucksport, Maine, the news was personal for Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) field coordinator Linda Murch. As a former employee, Linda knows first-hand just how important the facility is to the mill’s 570 workers and the entire Bucksport community, including many people in her own family.

ManufactureThis chatted with Linda about the mill’s closing, what impact it will have, and what can be done to support U.S. manufacturing workers facing potential closures of their own.

To start, can you tell us a little bit about your history working at the mill? When did you start? What specifically did you do?

I started in April 1999. My work in the mill centered on two departments, Wood Processing and the Pulp Mill. Both of these jobs are nontraditional jobs for women — they involved handling the raw wood, both manually and with powered equipment. During my time in the mill, I operated front-end loaders, hydraulic wood loaders, cable cranes, and excavators equipped with a pulp loader grapple. We also sorted wood by hand, operated conveyor systems and higher up the chain were operators in control booths.

Linda Murch now works as an AAM field coordinator.

What did it mean to you to have a job at the mill?

Being hired at the mill meant access to the highest paying jobs available in my area that did not require post-secondary education or training. The pay scale and the benefits were well above average. For me personally, it meant working in the mill that had brought both of my parents’ families to Bucksport. My father's stepfather moved to town to work construction on the mill and my mother's grandfather came to work in the woodyard. My father had worked there over 40 years, my brother recently retired after 40 years, and my sister is still employed there until the closure with 30 years. 

What did the mill mean to the community?

For many years, the mill meant stability and jobs for those in the community — they were the largest employer in the county. The mill supported the local schools in their activities, civic groups, United Way, etc. This was during St. Regis and Champion ownerships. After the mill was sold to large corporations — that were not interested in making paper but in selling off assets and increasing their profits by changing the formula that had been successful for so many years — we saw a lot of changes. Equipment was not maintained as it had been, there was no community involvement, and managers were rotated so as not to form relationships.

This wasn’t the only mill in Maine that has shut down this year, and it obviously has been jarring. What effect do you think this is having on people in the state?

Instability in communities. Small businesses that traditionally support mills, the businesses where millworkers spend their money, are affected and also face closure or reductions. Towns are losing their tax-bases and facing shortfalls that can’t be made up just by raising taxes. Concessions are made to these large corporations, who then pull up stakes even when they are profitable just to fit a corporate strategy.

In your role as an AAM field coordinator, what have you told policymakers and others about what can be done to help support manufacturing in Maine?

We need to focus on policies that encourage manufacturing and enforce the rules we have in our trade agreements — for example, by taking action to end currency manipulation. When new agreements are formed, they need to make sure they are not adversely affecting American workers and U.S. manufacturing companies. Maine needs to focus on infrastructure improvements and energy costs. The state also should work to provide workforce education that prepares graduates and displaced workers for the skilled trades and high paying jobs that are going to be available, as well as innovation through research and development to find new markets and compete today.

What sort of things can national policymakers do to help support manufacturing, both in Maine and nationally?

A National Manufacturing Strategy and strong Buy America legislation. We also need to make clear to our policymakers and the public that manufacturing is not the picture they might have of the old-style manufacturing — dirty, dangerous, boring work. We need to recognize that low-wage jobs that were meant to be entry level are now being filled by people who are supporting families and need a living wage. Tax reform that does not hurt manufacturing employers and workers also is needed.

What final thoughts would you like to share?

Mainers are similar to workers in other states who have traditionally filled the manufacturing sector. They are willing to work hard at jobs that can be seen as unfulfilling by those who look to a “career” and they give an employer their money’s worth. All they ask for is a safe place to work, a decent wage, and to know their job will be there tomorrow.