Employees devastated by news

Published 9:09 am Friday, October 23, 2009

FRANKLIN—Guy Freeman Jr. was working his regular shift on the production floor at International Paper Co.’s Franklin mill while Thursday’s meeting announcing the mill’s closure was being held.

“It was slipping through the cracks before the meeting was even over,” he said. One of his coworkers received a text message saying that the mill was closing. “Everybody started going to the computers, checking e-mails and everything.”

Many employees said they weren’t completely caught off guard by the closure but were surprised by how quickly it happened.

“A lot of us felt it was coming with all of the shutdowns, but we just were not expecting it now,” said Lee Parker, who works in maintenance and has been at the mill for 21 years. “We were not shocked that it happened, just shocked at the timing.”

Working the rest of his shift after hearing the news wasn’t easy, Freeman said.

“It was crazy, just sitting there wondering what you’re going to do next, what’s the next move you’re going to have to make, thinking about the future, what you’re going to do and how you’re going to pay this and how you’re going to pay that,” he said.

Fred Myrick, standing outside of the mill, said he got a call to come in for a meeting.

“It was like a punch in the stomach,” he said of the news. “They didn’t give us any warning. I feel devastated.”

Myrick, who works in fibers and has been at the mill for four years, said he worried about the mill closing but was taken aback by how quickly everything happened.

“This is going to be hard,” he said. “I’ve seen crying today. It’s a sad situation.”

Chris Francis, who’s been at the mill for 14 years and works in mill maintenance, predicts that the closure will cost the area 5,000 jobs indirectly.

“The area is going to be devastated, and it will be felt in a 100-mile radius,” he said.

Parker agrees that the closure will cause a ripple effect through the entire region.

“Franklin is going to see a big blow no doubt, I’d say a third of the businesses over here will suffer big time, a lot of them will fold up and go under,” he said.

Tower operator Steve Ivey has worked at the mill for 32 years. He isn’t pleased with the way the closure is being handled.

“They won’t answer your questions, they won’t tell you anything you want to know, there is no need to sit and go through the meeting,” he said. “Everything is their way, it’s been their way, and it’s going to be like that. I guess we are out of luck.”

IP’s decision not to put the mill up for sale angered some employees like chip helper Glenn Banty, who’s been there for 24 years. He said putting the mill up for sale would at least give employees a chance to keep their jobs.

“But they are just going to shut it down, and paper will never be made here again,” he said.

As for his future, 43-year-old Freeman is uncertain.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, I really don’t,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 22 years. I’m not a young man trying to apply for a job.”

“It’s kind of hard to start all over,” Freeman said, and he doesn’t want to leave the area.

“If I was to have to relocate, it would be very devastating for me to leave my kids, my father,” he said. “All of my family is here.”

Log crane operator Joe Umphlett, a 27-year employee, said that his family has been involved with the mill for generations.

“My folks have been in this mill for 72 continual years,” he said.

Joe Stutts, who retired from Union Camp after 28 years of service and served as the company’s manager of community relations, said the news was devastating.

“My personal reaction is one of great sadness because a lot of people gave their whole careers to making it a successful business. We had a culture there of the company looking after its own. Of course, that is all gone now.”