An Explosion, Layoffs, and the End of Paper in Jay
When the Androscoggin Mill closed last month, it ended 130 years of paper making in this small, tight-knit town.
This article is being co-published with The Real News Network
JAY, MAINE — Workers said the last roll of paper came off the machine at around 1 a.m. on March 8, ending more than 57 years of paper production at the Androscoggin Mill currently owned by Pixelle Specialty Solutions in Jay, Maine, and about 130 years of paper making in the small, tight-knit town. The machines would turn off and the mill would close with a whimper, not a bang, betraying the town’s history and the fanfare it might suggest.
The immediate ramifications of the end of production are substantial: some 230 people reportedly work at the mill. Alan Ulman, a company spokesperson, wrote in an email that 89 would be kept on for “closure activities,” though it was unclear for how long.
The small town of less than 5,000 people in southwestern Maine (about an hour and a half’s drive north from Portland) also anticipates a loss of more than $1 million annually in tax revenue from the mill — what amounts to about 12% of their total tax revenue, according to Jay Town Manager Shiloh LaFreniere, and that doesn’t include the indirect effects of the closure that are sure to come from what is likely to be more infrequent economic activity in the town.
Workers appeared to be dealing with this loss in multiple ways. One mill worker — who wanted to remain anonymous because he hadn’t received his severance yet and was worried about possible retaliation — emerged theatrically triumphant from his final shift, throwing his hands in the air and yelling “freedom!” with more than an obvious hint of sarcasm. His brother, who similarly spoke to In These Times on condition of anonymity, already had a job lined up at another mill. He was clear, however, that he would only begin work again after a month off and lot of “two-wheel therapy” — what he calls riding his motorcycle.
On the other hand, they reported seeing others in the mill so worried about the next chapter of their lives that they wept — that they felt like they were too young to retire but too old to pick up another trade.
The decline of the Androscoggin Mill being finally ushered to closure appears to have largely stemmed from a sudden and unexpected occurrence — and perhaps from the management decisions that followed. In April 2020, a wood pulp digester — the large machine used to cook the wood into pulp, which then goes through a few more steps until it is finally dried and cut into paper — exploded (and happened to be caught on video), making it so that it was impossible for the papermaking process to be completed in-house. According to news reports at the time, there were roughly 170 people working at the mill when the digester exploded.
Dennis Couture, the former Health and Safety Committee Chairman of the now decertified Local 14 that once represented workers at the mill, said the fact that there were no deaths was nothing short of miraculous. “And I don’t use that term lightly,” Couture, a regular attendee of the local Catholic parish — St. Rose of Lima — was quick to add. “I worked around that thing. There was always somebody in that area.”
The estimate for replacing the digester was reportedly $200-$300 million. If that wasn’t enough, when the digester exploded, it damaged a second digester, meaning it could cost some half a billion to fix both. Pixelle Specialty Solutions, the company that took over the mill about two months before the accident, was paid $350 million from insurance. Rather than investing the funds in the repair and replacement necessary to digest pulp in-house, the company opted to source pulp from other plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Couture recalls thinking of the decision: “You’ve just killed us, [the mill] has no chance of surviving now.”
Then, after a couple of years of attempting to make this process work, Pixelle Specialty Solutions announced the final closure of the mill on September 20, 2022.
Previous layoffs and now the ending of production at the mill are still only one of “a thousand cuts” taken by the community at the hands of corporate decision makers in the paper industry, according to Town Manager LaFreniere.
Built by International Paper in 1965, the Androscoggin Mill was, for a long time, a leading producer of magazine and specialty paper. In 2016, the mill, then owned by Verso, laid off 190 workers. In 2015, 300 workers were laid off. In 2009, another paper mill in Jay called the Otis Mill by locals and owned by Wausau Coated Products, Inc. at the time closed and laid off 96 workers. The year before that 150 workers were laid off by Wausau Coated Products, Inc.
All told, the most recent layoffs and the closure of the mill are a familiar story to a town that once employed more than 2,000 paper makers in two mills and that was once a site of worker power and militancy.
Jacob Morrison is host of The Valley Labor Report, Alabama’s only union talk radio show, Secretary-Treasurer of the North Alabama Area Labor Council, and sometimes freelance labor reporter. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter: @jacobm_al