While Union Leaders and Democrats Make Speeches

Image - South Central Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO) President Jim Kavanaugh speaking October 2 at the Wisconsin State Capitol building - “Gingerbelle” and “Sweet Lorraine” referred to on the signs are the names given to their two newest multi-billion dollar papermaking machines

Last August the final word went out that the Kimberly paper mill, built in 1889, was closing. The town of Kimberly, Wisconsin was named after the company and the family that founded it. Now the company, which has changed hands three times since the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, has ceased operations at the paper mill. The company, who owns four other mills in Wisconsin, cannot continue production profitably and thus must do as capitalists must do, stop production. Not only is production there unprofitable for the current owners, the Ohio based company NewPage, it would be unprofitable for the company even to sell the property and the machinery. From a capitalist point of view it is far better to let it rust in true “rust belt” fashion.

October 2, the United Steelworkers of America local 2-9, held a rally for the mill workers, their families and their supporters on the steps of the State Capitol building in Madison, calling upon the state government to pressure the company to sell or restart production. The speakers at the rally included two Democratic Party politicians from the House of Representatives, Rep.

Tom Nelson of Appleton, and Rep. Spencer Black of Madison in addition to USWA local 2-9 president Andy Nirschl, Michael Bolton, USWA District 2 President, and Phil Neuenfeld, the Secretary Treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. The unions and the Democratic Party are lining up to verbally support workers while doing nothing to stop the loss of 600 mill jobs.

Unions target cheap foreign exports from illegal logging done in Indonesia as the culprit for why profits are so terrible that the company would rather let the place rust than produce anything at the mill or even sell it. The protest itself encourages workers to engage in magical thinking when it comes to petitioning “their” elected officials.

Another company will face the same markets NewPage, Consolidated Paper, Repap, and Kimberly-Clark each faced in turn since Kimberly-Clark first sold the plant off in 1976.

While targeting cheap imports, as the USWA do, the union diverts attention from the truth that lies at the heart of the mill closing. NewPage company spokeswoman Amber Garwood, stating company thinking on the matter, maintains that selling the mill is not an option because to sell to a competitor would overload the supply for the grade of paper produced there. In short, the company blames a flooded market and overproduction for the reasons the mill must close. Overproduction in this case is driven by a crisis of profit that could be seen coming into play openly every time the mill has changed owners. NewPage has also shut down its Niagara plant in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, shedding the jobs of some 319 workers in the process. NewPage still owns four mills in Wisconsin.

An extraordinary amount of capital has gone into the two newest machines in the plant, which cost around one billion dollars.

The company has long been buying pulp on the markets rather than producing its own fiber pulp. This had advantages when the prices on the markets for paper pulp were good, but now things have changed. Not the least of which are the prices of transportation and rising commodity prices. Kimberly-Clark went into crisis in the seventies and in 1976 it sold the place to a Montreal based company called Repap (paper spelled backwards).

Repap bought the place and ran up huge debts by purchasing the newest equipment and set company production records. In 1989, Repap President George S. Petty began selling shares of company stock to Kimberly mill workers. The stock turned out to be a big loser and served to wipe out the retirement savings of many of the workers who were gullible enough to be convinced to buy the company’s stock. In 1997, Consolidated Paper bought the mill, which was employing at that time a peak of between 1,100 to 1,200 workers. They again set production records for the mill.

Consolidated then shifted all coated weboffset production (coated paper) to a mill in Wisconsin Rapids and shed 114 jobs in the process. In late 1999, Consolidated Paper sold its entire asset base to Stora Enso, a Swedish-Finnish conglomerate based in Helsinki. Stora Enso was then looking to break into the North American paper market. Stora Enso paid some $4.8 billion for Consolidated Paper’s assets and then sold it to NewPage for a mere $2.5 billion. (1) Instead of calls to our government to take action, workers might be better served by calling on workers at NewPage’s other mills to support them and go out on strike.

If any one mill was shut down, workers could respond by shutting the others down as well. Petitioning government officials to influence capitalists is humiliating. Workers’ collective instinct to help each other to fight back in situations of plant closings is made meaningless by expecting the unions and the state to play a neutral or sympathetic role in defending their interests. One way to start putting real pressure on the mill owners would be to organize industry-wide strikes at all the mills, something neither the unions nor the state would ever agree to.

Workers Rallying in front of Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago-December 2008
Workers Rallying in front of Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago-December 2008

Contrasted to this, the factory occupation by the former employees of Republic Windows and Doors was far less servile. The factory occupation by 250 in Chicago ended after five days this December with a minor victory for workers who managed to win around $6000 back pay each, accrued vacation time, severance pay and two months of extended health insurance coverage. This was the first such factory occupation since the 1970s not the 1930s as many ill-informed media pundits had said. Unions and their leaders jumped forward to posture in support of the workers. Politicians like President Elect Barack Obama, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, and Jesse Jackson all spoke in support of the workers and their struggle.

These politicians certainly didn’t suddenly start caring about the fate of a few workers.

They were solely interested in containing the struggle and limiting it to the bounds of unionism and its masters in the ruling Democratic Party. Where were the national leaders of the unions in this struggle? Where was the Central Federation of Labor? They largely did nothing. The struggle gave a bittersweet victory to the laid-off workers while allowing the unions to pose, again, as defenders of workers.

No victory was expected by the workers that started the occupation. Republic Window and Door workers instead expected to be hauled off to jail, not to gain national notoriety or win even the smallest victory.

Such a struggle, if it began to break free from the union orbit and started to move to actually take over the factories, would be a more concrete way of saving jobs. The unions and politicians during the struggle actually did very little for the workers. Even in a victorious struggle union apparatuses do little more than negotiate the sale of labor power with the capitalists, which is why capitalists won total control of the unions over the course of the first decades of the twentieth century. Where the legalistic statements by union officials and “sympathetic” politicians contrasted with statements by workers it was almost possible to believe that they were talking about two different strikes. The basic difference between the union labor management apparatus and the workers was quite clear.

Democrats may make speeches and unions may bargain “the best possible” deals with the capitalists, but it is workers that have to actually wage the struggles from start to finish. As workers gain experience in struggles and they see them happening, they may hopefully gain the confidence needed to keep struggling, if it goes far enough it might break free from union and Democratic Party control. The unions however will seek to promote this and use it to their advantage as a token struggle that makes the unions look good without sacrificing much on the part of their union leaderships. This struggle highlights the latent strength of workers and their will to resist even where their “leaderships” have an almost unbroken track record of betraying them for the last thirty years. When workers gain enough confidence in their strength take up struggle on their own behalf even a simple old strike tactic can take on threatening proportions in the minds of the capitalists.

For workers, who naturally want more than just severance pay, this struggle is a starting point. Ultimately, however, workers will have to do more than wage a defensive struggle bounded by the unions and the ruling parties.

They will have to gain confidence in their own power, build their own revolutionary party and wage a death struggle against the system that exploits them and then throws them away.


(1) Bach, Pete. NewPage unlikely to sell Kimberly mill after Sept. 8 closing. Green Bay Press Gazette. August 26, 2008. greenbaypressgazette.com