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Shredding Paper

USM economics professor Michael Hillard's insightful book about Maine's decimated forest-products industry

by | Sep 18, 2021

Shredding Paper: The Rise and Fall of Maine’s Mighty Paper Industry
Michael G. Hillard
ILR Press

In his insightful new book, Shredding Paper: The Rise and Fall of Maine’s Mighty Paper Industry, University of Southern Maine economics professor Michael Hillard points out — as delicately as a state employee can, I suppose — that capitalism is a colossal failure and our fundamental assumptions about the economy must now change.

In broad strokes, Shredding Paper is the story of how Maine, by virtue of its topography, vast forestland and hardworking people, became the biggest producer of paper products in the nation; how, beginning in the late 1960s, mega-corporations and greedy investors destroyed papermaking in Maine through mass layoffs, gross mismanagement, and a slavish devotion to short-term shareholder interests; and, finally, what workers did to fight back, ultimately in vain.

Hillard reports that “in the space of one generation,” employment in Maine’s paper and logging industry shrank by 80 percent, leaving only about 6,000 workers in the sector as of this decade. “Not surprisingly,” he writes, “the loss of the last, large, well-paid source of rural employment (outside of health care), sparked a progressive depopulation of rural towns in Maine, leaving a population that is mostly over fifty and soaring rates of hunger and drug addiction.”

Shredding Paper is a work of labor history, so Hillard leaves out some of the worst consequences of papermaking in Maine, most notably the cancerous dioxin pollution that gushed into our waterways for decades, and the ecocidal clear-cut logging operations. What he does cover is bad enough to make one wonder whether Maine would’ve been better off had the industry never sprouted here.

Hillard has interviewed scores of paper-industry workers and managers over the past two decades, and he treats both groups with sympathy and respect. These Mainers are rightly proud of the hand-cut and hand-crafted products they made and sent around the world. Hillard observes that paper mills were among the last factories to be automated, because so much of the work required spontaneous decision-making and the application of knowledge that can only be gained by years of human experience. Up in the woods, lumberjacks remained indispensible well into the 1980s, when wood-harvesting machines like the monstrous feller-buncher started uprooting their livelihoods, too. Maine’s woodcutting workforce shrank to a quarter of its size between 1975 and 2000, Hillard reports. The industrial loggers that remained cut twice as many trees down per year.

It would be cruel to kick the chair out from under the old-timers who fondly recall working for “Mother Warren,” the name many workers used to refer to S.D. Warren, the company that built the historic paper mill in Westbrook. A major point in Hillard’s book is that workers and managers alike blame the industry’s demise on new owners who cared more about Wall Street than Main Street. By comparison, they look favorably upon the big paper companies that built the mills and paid a decent wage for a hard day’s work — you know, back when America was great.

Shredding Paper does us the favor of shredding that myth, and implores us to look beyond both Corporate America and neoliberal globalization for a way out of the hellscape the paper industry has left behind.

Hillard devotes a section of his book to life at the Warren mill in Westbrook during the glory days of Maine’s paper industry. The relationship between workers and ownership was “virtually feudal,” he observes. In part, this was because early paper barons like Samuel Dennis Warren had to build not only mills, but towns around them to house workers deep in the Maine woods. S.D. didn’t skimp — he commissioned architects like John Calvin Stevens to build hundreds of single-family homes in the late 1800s, a time when more heartless oligarchs were content to construct shabby tenements or offer tenting space.

S.D. Warren Company’s mill on the Presumpscot River in Westbrook in 1884. image/Shredding Paper; Walker Memorial Library

But this largesse came with some heavy strings. Aside from the obvious problems that stem from the power imbalance when your boss is also your landlord, “strict rules about conduct were enforced for those living in [company homes],” Hillard wrote. S.D. hated drinking, banned smoking a century before it was fashionable to do so, and “disliked recruiting immigrants.”

In the 20th century, this feudal relationship evolved into an almost maternal one, thus inspiring the nickname. Mother Warren provided comfort and security is myriad ways. First and foremost, by providing steady and relatively good-paying employment to entire families, generation after generation — the company hired workers’ relatives practically as a matter of course.

Also by running a company store and by acting as a bank: loaning employees money to buy pricey goods like furniture, as well as providing home loans and loans to cover medical and other personal expenses (including treatment for serious injuries suffered on the job, which were common). The company would repay itself by deducting a small sum from workers’ paychecks until the principal was repaid in full (Hillard makes no mention of the company applying interest; it may have).

In addition to homes and a church, S.D. and his descendants built a library, ball fields, a swimming pool and other public facilities. And Mother Warren did a lot of social work. It hired war-traumatized WWII vets and locals with physical or mental disabilities, and kept them on for decades, regardless of their productivity. Workers who skipped shifts due to domestic or personal problems, including alcoholism, were almost never fired, Hillard found. Instead, the company paid for alcoholic employees to be “dried out” at the local hospital, or kept them in the “drunk tank” inside the medical facility on the mill’s property.

The mill’s top managers lived in town — in fact, they ran the town, dominating Westbrook’s city government and its delegation to Augusta in the decades before 1970. At work, their office doors were always open to employees in need of a loan or a favor or just some advice — one manager expressed shock at the deeply personal nature of the problems workers brought to him to solve.

Hillard duly reports Mother Warren’s best attributes, but also duly covers its faults. And there were some doozies.

For example, it’s nice to hire family members, but less nice when rampant nepotism blocks qualified people from promotion and puts unqualified supervisors in charge, which happened all the time. S.D. Warren always hired women, and then proceeded to pay them way less than men, excluded them from most of the jobs, fired them first whenever work got slow, and if they were rehired, they came back as new employees, with none of the seniority benefits accrued during their previous employment.

Oh, and sexual harassment was practically a sport. “[W]omen got jobs by giving sexual favors to foremen,” a shop steward at the Westbrook mill told Hillard. “Women who refused ‘had the shittiest jobs,’ and received, ‘the worst treatment.’”

It’s expensive to restart a huge paper machine, so companies like S.D. Warren compelled workers to keep its mills running 24/7/365. The shifts were physically punishing and the workplace was toxic, deafening, dangerous and hostile. “It is harsh,” a worker named Barry Kenney told Hillard, “the language you use is harsh, the way people deal with one another is harsh — very short with one another … And the work environment is harsh — it’s hot, stinks, it’s humid … it’s dirty, just as dirty as can be, greasy, you name it….”

As Hillard notes, “a paper mill is also a chemical factory, with little safeguards to exposure, a constant arduousness that is hard to imagine people sustaining for years and decades.” The author quotes a man who worked near coating machines: “The chemicals they had in the coating, the smells they had … just would gag you. And the engineer would come by with the wand and test the air and say it was fine, and then he’d go outside and throw his guts up. But we had to work in it eight hours a day.”

The experience of a longtime S.D. Warren worker named Mae Bachelor is typical, and tragic. She toiled in the Westbrook mill from 1940 through the mid ’70s, retiring only because the chemicals she inhaled each day at work gradually destroyed her ability to breathe. Her six-hour graveyard shift, combined with her daytime domestic duties as a wife and mother, allowed Mae only three hours of sleep per day. Each time she had to take a few months off following childbirth, Mother Warren hired her back, minus all seniority benefits.

Mae’s husband also worked at the mill. In the ’60s, a chemical explosion killed two of his coworkers and “draped his body in caustic liquor … roughly half of his body’s skin was permanently disfigured,” Hillard reports. “In recalling this horror,” he wrote of Mae, “she finishes with the optimistic spin that, ‘He never lost a day’s pay.’”

And therein lies the central problem Shredding Paper seeks to help solve. Hillard calls the book “an autopsy of twentieth-century capitalism.” The catastrophe caused by the neoliberal economic policies of the past 40 years is plain for all to see — most Mainers can’t even afford to feed their children these days without government help. But Hillard warns against idolizing a system in which one’s livelihood, health, home and retirement are all dependent on private employers like S.D. Warren.

The benefits and amenities Mother Warren provided — from healthcare to baseball diamonds — would be more properly, and more equitably, provided by a public institution funded by, and accountable to, the people. Hillard believes Mainers are increasingly open to “new economic imaginaries,” like “cooperative economic practices” that include worker ownership of enterprises. He also thinks the U.S. has suffered for lack of a national industrial policy capable of directing public investment into specific industries, like China has done with specialty paper, and making trade laws that fairly protect domestic jobs.

In the book’s epilogue, Hillard observes that Republican and Democratic politicians alike will jump into action to save big employers like the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and the few remaining mills in Maine. Their solution, too often, is to bring in big investors who’ve merely continued the strip-and-sell practices of the past half century.

A fundamentally different economy is absolutely on the table now. Hillard’s informative book is a valuable contribution to this discussion.

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