Paper machines fall silent
Published 10:39 am Saturday, April 17, 2010
FRANKLIN, Va. — Thursday afternoon’s shift change at the International Paper Co. mill in Franklin had all the appearances of being a normal, routine activity.
Just as some of them had done thousands of times before, workers emerged from the beige, single-story building at the entrance to the mill and trickled into the parking lot to find their cars and go home.
But for all of the workers, Thursday was anything but a normal day at the mill. It was the last day paper would be made there. The Nos. 4 and 5 machines at the mill were shut down on Thursday.
“This is a sad day,” said Donnie Dunlow, a North Carolinian with 26 years of service at the mill. “There’s not many people left to talk to. Everybody is still in shock at something that’s been here this long and is now just all of a sudden going down.”
Dunlow, who works in instrumentation at the mill, said today will be his last day working there. On Monday he starts a new job in North Carolina.
“It’s a sad time,” Dunlow said. “It’s all running together.”
John Hopkins, a resident of Franklin and a mill employee for 33 years, said he knew Thursday — the last day of operation for the final two paper machines at the mill — was coming, but the day was still a bit of a shock when it arrived.
“I knew it was coming,” Hopkins said Thursday. “I didn’t know if it would be this soon or not. I didn’t realize it would be this quick.”
Hopkins, who is attending Paul D. Camp Community College for warehouse training, described the work pace at the mill as slow and said his co-workers were depressed.
“You’ve got a lot of time on your hands to think about stuff,” Hopkins said. “When you’ve got too much time on your hands, you tend to think about too much stuff and get even more depressed.”
Tony Edwards, a resident of Black Creek and an employee of the mill for 35 years, agreed that other mill workers were depressed.
“It’s the same way it’s been for the last couple of months,” Edwards said Thursday. “It’s depressing to come to work.”
Edwards said he works as a millwright in the mill’s bleach area. He said the next few weeks of his employment would be spent “opening up tanks and chests and securing them.” His last day will be May 14.
“I’m actively seeking employment. I’ve got to find something,” Edwards said. He added that he has pursued jobs at the Norfolk Naval Base and at the Northrop Grumman shipyard.
Thursday was the last day of work at the mill for Carla Vaughan, a 21-year mill veteran whose current job is to check consistencies. She plans to move to Georgetown, S.C. to reunite with her husband, Doug, a mill supervisor at the IP facility there. Asked what emotions were going through her mind, Vaughan said, “Mostly it’s the part about saying goodbye to people that you’ve worked with for so long. They’re like your family over here. Whether you want to have them as your family or not, they are.”
Ray Pierce, a maintenance welder from Suffolk with 34 years at the mill, agreed with Vaughan and said his soon-to-be former co-workers were like family to him as well. His last day is May 14.
“We grew up together,” Pierce said Thursday. “I just hope that we can find the same camaraderie somewhere else.”
One of Pierce’s neighbors, C.L. Carr, has 38 years at the mill and currently works in mechanical maintenance. His last day is also May 14.
“Everybody is maintaining, taking it one day at a time,” Carr said of his co-workers. “We’re just waiting for it to be over.”
Asked what his future plans are, Carr joked, “Not to go back and work for International Paper. (But) I’m just going to take it one day at a time for awhile and then this fall I’ll figure it out.”
At Fred’s Restaurant in nearby downtown Franklin, manager David Rabil was optimistic about the future.
“We need a fresh start,” Rabil said Thursday. “Once that thing shuts down and those 35 office people go to Suffolk and we don’t have any sign of IP over there, it might be a good thing. We might be able to get our mind shut off of depending on (IP) and work on keeping ourselves going on. We can’t roll over and give up.”
By shutting down the last two machines, IP has made it clear that paper production is now in Franklin’s past.
Vaughan said it was now in her past, too.
“The only thing I want to do with paper (from now on) is either write on it or print it out of my printer,” she said.
International Paper Co. announced that it will trim more than 100 jobs from the Franklin mill’s workforce on April 30.
IP sent a letter dated Feb. 26 to City of Franklin and Isle of Wight County (Va.) officials in compliance with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. According to the letter, IP plans to shut down the Nos. 4 and 5 paper machines on April 15. The company will then terminate 106 employees on April 30. Of those, 51 are paper mill employees, 30 are in fibers general operations and 19 work at the fibers recycling plant. Another four workers are in the roll finishing department and two are in the fibers wood yard.
According to Franklin Mill Communications Manager Desmond Stills, the majority of the workforce at the mill will be released sometime between April 15 and June 30.
“During that time, employees will work to secure and preserve equipment and to process and ship out the remaining inventories of paper at the mill,” Stills said.
IP announced in October of last year that it would close the Franklin mill as part of a strategy of reducing production capacity. The company shut down the No. 6 paper machine at the mill on Nov. 9 and the No. 1 paper machine at the end of 2009.
According to numbers provided by International Paper, 217 members of its workforce at the Franklin mill listed North Carolina addresses. Of that number, Gates County leads the way with 84 workers. Hertford County (73), Northampton County (43) and Bertie County (7) also saw some of its residents affected by the closure. The remaining 10 North Carolina based workers hail from Chowan County, Perquimans County and Halifax County.
(Charlie Passut is a Staff Writer for the Tidewater News in Franklin, Va., a sister publication of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald.)