ROARING SPRING, Pennsylvania — When the Appvion Inc. paper mill plant shut its doors for good on April 1, putting 293 people out of work, it marked the first significant manufacturing loss in this state since President Joe Biden took office.
“We were all completely blindsided,” said state Sen. Judy Ward, who claims she and other local officials had no hint that the plant, founded in 1866, was in danger of shuttering.
If you received a stimulus check in the mail, there’s a good chance the men and women who work here produced the paper it was printed on. And yet there will be no stimulus for this factory, which produces carbonless security paper for official documents like car titles and house deeds.
Of the 293 jobs lost, 250 of them will be union; the rest are management. The average person here makes around $67,000 a year, based on a 49-hour workweek.
“When 300 people lose good-paying jobs, it’s not just 300 people that are adversely affected,” said Stephen McKnight, CEO and president of the local Altoona-Blair County Development Corporation.
“For every one job lost, an additional four to seven jobs outside the company are hurt, too. The long-term impact is even worse, costing a region millions of dollars that used to go directly into the community, schools and businesses.”
Mitchell Becker, president of the local branch of United Steelworkers, the union that endorsed Biden for president, said he thought his job — which he’s kept for 25 years — was safe.
“Last year, we started to have layoffs, more than we have ever had since 1972,” said 55-year-old Becker. But “we never thought we’d close; we just thought we would be sold.”
Last month, he walked into what he thought was a routine labor management meeting to discuss plant issues — and instead received a brief and brutal announcement.
“The mill leadership, including management from Wisconsin, just told us that we’re closing down on April 1. And then they got up and left the room and let us sit there to vent to each other.”
Biden’s vocal support of unions, including a group of Amazon employees in Alabama, has done little to stem the loss of blue-collar jobs in America. Last week, Ford Motors announced a plan to build their new vehicles in Mexico instead of Ohio, and the United Auto Workers, which also endorsed Biden in 2020, blasted the move.
In 2018, Appvion was sold to a private equity group. Now, they have decided to sell off their carbonless paper business to another corporation. Calls to Appvion’s management, based in Appleton, Wisconsin, were not returned, but in its official statement, the company blamed the plant’s closure on restrictions caused by COVID-19.
Locals claim that’s just the half of it. They also speculate that inevitable climate change demands from the Biden administration would have forced Appvion to make costly upgrades, like when the plant underwent an expensive retrofit so it could meet new emissions standards set by the Obama administration.
With Biden pledging to make environmental justice an integral part of every aspect of his administration, many believe Appvion saw the writing on the wall — and decided to bail.
“I’ve actually seen that in some other companies in my district; as a business, you look down the road, and you have to be prepared for anything,” said Ward. “And if you look at these tighter environmental controls, that has to be a concern.”
Sitting squarely in the center of this picturesque town, the plant’s gentle hum can be heard as you approach it from state Route 867, symbolizing work, prosperity and stability for the people who live and work here. Church steeples and Victorian-era homes line the streets around the factory, like stately sentinels guarding it.
If the plant closes, the town of 2,400 will be down to two major employers: a trucking company and a limestone quarry, both locally owned.
Chris McNally, 48, was just six years out of high school when he started work at the plant. His mom worked there; so did his great uncle and his great grandfather and now his son-in-law.
“Hiring family is encouraged because people know that comes with a lineage of a good work ethic,” said McNally, vice president of the local United Steelworkers union. “People rarely call off work here.”
The fact that the plant is owned by a company many states away likely made it easier for them to pull the plug, said Ward.
“It used to be businesses had an owner or a board of directors who lived in the same towns as their employees; they attended the same church services; their children were involved in sports; they were invested,” she said. “Now they live far away, and it is easier to turn out the lights and walk away because there is no societal pressure to try to remain invested in restructuring to save the plant.”
Locals are not totally without hope. Some interested buyers have toured the plant, but that’s all the workers know. In the meantime, they are facing the one thing they fear the most: silence.
“For 155 years, that hum meant people were working,” said Becker.
Becker remains a staunch supporter of Biden and said he’d love to see the president come here and talk to his union brothers and sisters.
“I would try to explain to him we really need his help, we really need that level playing field he always talks about,” he said. “Fair trade does not mean free trade, and if he comes through with that promise for that level playing field, well … we can manufacture better than any other place in the world.”
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