Layoffs At 100-Year-Old Mill Gut Town's Identity
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
You could be forgiven if you missed this week's news that International Paper is closing three plants and laying off more than 1,600 workers. In a recession that's seen more than seven million jobs lost, such announcements have become almost routine. But in the rural town of Franklin, Virginia, the decision was life-altering. Eleven hundred of the International Paper layoffs will take place there, in a city with a population of less than 9,000.
NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.
ADAM HOCHBERG: Nobody here in Franklin is really sure what the town will be like without this paper mill, because there's never been a time in Franklin's history when the mill wasn't here. It was founded in the years after the Civil War and survived the Depression, labor strikes and hurricanes.
Today, its tall smokestacks, its characteristic sulfur smell and the loud noise of its boilers continue to be the defining characteristics of this riverfront community.
Mr. DARYL BUTLER: When I get up in the morning - I live 3.8 miles from here - and I drive out of my driveway, I can see the mill from my house.
HOCHBERG: Daryl Butler has worked for International Paper for 10 years, but his kinship with the mill goes back much further. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather all worked for its former owners, a locally owned company called Union Camp. International Paper has operated the plant since 1999, and it told employees this week the mill will close for good next year.
Mr. BUTLER: I was speechless. As soon as it was said, you could have dropped a pin and everybody's emotions went right on their shirt sleeve. You see the hurt and the tears in their eyes. I don't ever want to have to go through that again.
HOCHBERG: In some ways, people in Franklin might have seen this coming. Shortly after International Paper took over 10 years ago, the mill's workforce was cut by about a third and there have been several smaller layoffs since then. Still, as recently as a few months ago, company executives assured people here that the Franklin operation fit into its long-term plans. So, Cedric Bryant, a 30-year employee and union leader, says the closing came as a shock.
Mr. CEDRIC BRYANT: We never imagined that they would shut the whole facility down. And it's devastating. This is our family. I've been through three marriages, but I've only had one job my whole life, and that's at this mill.
Mayor JIM COUNCILL (Franklin, Virginia): This is a fuel plant here and the buildings where they actually run the paper-making process.
HOCHBERG: As Franklin Mayor Jim Councill drives around the sprawling paper complex, he points out the various parts - an old saw mill, the finishing buildings where workers turn out stock for office paper and envelopes, and the smokestacks that serve as a backdrop to downtown.
Mr. COUNCILL: You can see the steam on clear days and you can see the tall buildings.
HOCHBERG: And you can smell it too.
Mr. COUNCILL: You can, but we always say that it smells like money.
HOCHBERG: The mayor says he can't estimate how much money will be lost when the mill closes. It accounts for 5 percent of the city's tax revenue and a bigger percentage of the county's. And, of course, there is the loss of 1,100 jobs with an average salary of about $60,000 a year.
Mr. COUNCILL: I mean, how many mortgages are going to go upside-down? You know, how many people are going to have no income because both parents will lose their job? I don't know what's going to happen, and I don't know where they'll live. And those are the things that concern me that we need to begin to find the answers to.
HOCHBERG: For their part, local International Paper officials say they're sympathetic about the hole they're leaving in this community. They note that many of them live in Franklin too. But spokesman Desmond Stills - who's also losing his job - says the company had little choice in light of the recession and a 20 percent decline in demand for paper.
Mr. DESMOND STILLS (Spokesman, International Paper): Anytime you stop purchasing anything, you've also stopped purchasing paper. If you stop purchasing new sneakers, you stop purchasing the box that it came in. If you don't buy your lawnmower, you don't buy the manual that came along with it. So, as long as the recession is - and people stop purchasing, they're going to stop purchasing paper.
HOCHBERG: Stills says the mill will be closed gradually with the last employees leaving in the spring. But before it's idled, there's a lot more that needs to be done. The company will start working with union leaders on severance packages and outplacement services. The mayor says he'll be meeting with state and federal officials to plead for aid. And ministers here are putting together plans for a community prayer service - the kind of event they've held in the past after natural disasters, like floods. One local minister says it seems especially necessary now, as townsfolk face an economic storm.
Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Franklin, Virginia.
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