Mill memories: Part 2 — The IP era

Published 10:17 am Saturday, November 28, 2009

… continued from Nov. 22

Needless to say, my father’s wages had risen substantially during his 34-year career at the mill. By the time he retired in 1974, Camp’s mill had merged with Union Bag and Paper Co., forming Union Camp Corp. International Paper Co., the world’s largest paper company and a multinational corporation, assumed ownership in 1999.

Gradually locals increasingly referred to the mill simply as “IP.” This subtle segue from a long-familiar name heralded a much bigger change that was not so insignificant: a change in corporate philosophies.

Under Camp’s mill management, and to a lesser degree under Union Camp’s, there was a benevolent attitude toward employees. For the most part, having a good work record and being a productive employee were good assurances of a secure good-paying job until retirement and a pension.

But as one would expect from a multinational company competing in world markets, IP’s management philosophy was of a “cost-cutting, bottom line, corporate culture” style. This resulted in a considerably leaner workforce at the mill, with several layoffs and buyouts, before the closure was announced in October 2009. “Reduced demand for paper due to the recession” was cited as the official reason. But curiously, many IP workers were given bonuses shortly before the announcement.

The shock from IP’s announcement stunned employees and area residents. The shockwaves also reverberated throughout greater Tidewater and parts of North Carolina from where many IP employees commute. From the comments expressed publicly, few are buying the “official reason.”

Unfortunately for many IP workers, their chances of finding jobs paying as well as IP have been severely diminished because of the “global economy” and the U.S. participation in free-trade agreements. Many good-paying, blue-collar as well as management jobs have evaporated in the U.S. Manufacturers increasingly seek lower production costs in low-wage, Third World countries. Mexico, Vietnam, Brazil and China are prime examples.

If my father were alive, I often wonder what he would think about the mill closing. For him the mill represented more than just a job — it was the topic of many of his conversations, and his social life revolved almost exclusively around his mill co-workers. Much of his leisure time was spent hunting, fishing and “chewing the fat” with Leroy Smith, Monk Bynum, Zerve Mason, James Ridley, Manny Porter, Robert Gainey, “Peter Rabbit” and his other mill buddies.

After his retirement he continued to socialize with his mill buddies — some retired, some still working. He held court under a large maple tree in his back yard, offering opinions about everything from his beloved Baltimore Orioles to local, national and international events.

My father was a keen observer of American politics, economic trends and world events. He read the Suffolk News-Herald every day and, shift work permitting, religiously watched “Meet The Press” on Sundays. Weekdays, when off, he would watch the “CBS Evening News” with Douglas Edwards and later Walter Cronkite. Few newsworthy events escaped his scrutiny.

His eyebrows would have undoubtedly raised upon reading that IP had gotten rid of many longtime mill employees, had sold and donated millions of acres of timberland in the Southeast, sold the particleboard plant and shuttered the sawmill. He probably would have lamented that those omens did not bode well for the long-term future of the mill.

I could even envision his intellectual curiosity compelling him to ask some of his children or grandchildren to do Internet searches about IP. It’s conceivable that this press release, issued on Sept. 19, 2006, would not have escaped his scrutiny. It reads in part:

International Paper has entered into an agreement with Votorantim Celulose e Papel S.A. to exchange IP’s pulp mill project being developed in Tres Lagoas, state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil for VCP’s Luiz Antonio pulp and uncoated paper mill and approximately 60,000 hectares of forestlands located in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

“International Paper’s Brazil operations are an important base for the company and this is an opportunity to expand our position in regional markets while capitalizing on one of the world’s lowest-cost manufacturing environments. With this agreement, we will have the ability to expand our already successful platform to better serve growing demand in Latin America, as well as provide for future growth opportunities in other regions of the world,” said John Faraci, IP’s chairman and CEO.

Given the above information, I don’t think that my father would have been totally clueless at IP’s decision to close the mill. But I think that he still would have been shocked because of the financial devastation it will cause. And, like a lot of other Franklinites, I don’t think that he would have bought for one nanosecond IP’s official reason — the recession.

My father probably would have summed up the situation with one of his favorite sayings:

“When money talks, the truth is often silent.”