Canton, a small town in North Carolina, has relied on its paper mill for over a century as the life-blood of the town’s economy. The paper mill employees, from the mechanics and technicians, to the engineers and operators and every worker in between have been pouring their soul into the paper mill which was owned by Evergreen since 2007 and merged with Pactiv in 2020. The town was essentially a company town, one built by the company to sustain the company. Fast-forward to March 7, 2023 and Pactiv-Evergreen owned by New Zealand billionaire Graeme Hart, announced that the plant will close in July of the same year.
To close a major paper mill that has been operating since 1908 in such a short notice seems pretty drastic. What is behind this closure? The plant started to scale back in February. According to Troy Dill, the shop steward for the United Steelworkers Smokey Mountain 507, “The company is stating that the core cause of the curtailment is a drop in demand. We don’t have anything to contradict that, but it would make sense to me that if a buyer is seeing that our labor agreement has been expired going on a year now, they might look for another avenue, just to maintain assurances that their orders will be fulfilled.” Dills stated that mill-workers have been working without a contract since May of 2022 after turning down two contracts on the basis that stagnating wages and inflation after the Covid-19 epidemic is leading to hardship for the workers. Dills was quoted, “We have presented the company reasonable terms in good faith that are proportionate to the changes in the economy. The company needs to acknowledge that inflation is real and also acknowledge the contributions of these employees, who got them through the COVID crisis. They deserve a fair contract. The request that’s been made is reasonable. We’re hopeful that they will come back to the table with that understanding.” Labor Today reached out to United Steel Workers for a statement but did not receive a response. According to a former employee, Mandy West, “During every labor contract dispute, Evergreen would threaten to shut down the mill.”
From 2015 to 2022, the plant has had two major accidents which resulted in the deaths of 2 workers and more injured. This all happened despite Pactiv-Evergreen being awarded a generous $12 million contract in 2015 to maintain employment at a minimum of 800 employees for 10 years. With the contract ending in 2025, the North Carolina Governor, sent a letter to Pactiv-Evergreen CEO Mike King on March 16th 2023 to return the $12 million incentive.
The closure of the plant means the loss of 1,100 jobs. All done in the greedy interests of the boss. On March 2, 2023, hundreds of thousands of dollars of shares were sold by the Plant’s executives just days before the plant’s announcement of closure. Some employees were able to secure lower paying jobs outside of the town but for the other workers and for the town as a whole, the future looks uncertain.