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Stone cold

Smurfit-Stone announces closure of Frenchtown mill

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Nate Evans and Dougie Gibbs sit at the bar of the Frenchtown Club, backlit by a line of keno machines. Gibbs is in his early 50s, tall and lanky with a thick mustache. Evans, who celebrated his 61st birthday last week, looks a bit like Santa with his white hair and full white beard.

But there's nothing jolly about this scene. It's just after 8 p.m. on Dec. 14, and Gibbs and Evans have two more weeks at Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.'s Frenchtown mill. The company announced the permanent closure of the facility to supervisors and union reps twelve hours ago. Like other mill workers, Gibbs and Evans say they've seen a full shutdown coming for years. Evans, a 32-year employee at the linerboard plant, admits he only half expected it to really happen.

"It's not like it's a real shocking thing," Evans says. "It's a matter of how soon is it going to happen? Well, we've played nine innings and now we're in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. Come Feb. 11 [when the benefits expire], we're all done. We strike out. They're going to shut 'er down."

Gibbs and Evans spend the next few minutes trying to tally how many gradual cutbacks they've seen at the mill over the years. Evans points out that the layoffs stretch beyond the 417 employees listed in Smurfit-Stone's release. With earlier closures at the No. 1 and No. 2 machines, the number jumps to more than 600, he says. Many are older guys who, like him, could just take a financial hit and enter early retirement. He worries more about the young guys with wives, kids and houses.

"Where do you go?" Evans asks. "There's nothing in Missoula to go to. If you're a back tender on a paper machine, there's not a lot of call for a back tender...Where's the closest paper machine? Idaho maybe? But there's not a big call 'cause nobody quits.

"Kids—it's going to hit them hard because they won't be able to go to work in Missoula."

Smurfit-Stone's Division Vice President Larry Price and Director of Human Resources Jim Sanders delivered news of the closure at an 8 a.m. emergency meeting Monday. Operations will cease on Dec. 31, they said, and a limited number of employees will remain to help mothball the facility.

Roy Houseman, at 28 one of the younger workers Evans referred to, was among the first to hear about the shutdown. As president of the United Steelworkers Local 885, he represents 342 unionized workers at the mill. He aims to fight for every transitional benefit he can win them during severance package negotiations on Jan. 5.

"This is a good middle-class income job," Houseman says. "You're talking about over $50,000 a year. That's the ability to raise a family and buy a house and do these things that are really important to a sustainable community in Missoula."

Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. announced the permanent closure of its Frenchtown linerboard plant Dec. 14. The shutdown, which goes into effect at the end of the month, puts 417 people out of a job. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • Photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. announced the permanent closure of its Frenchtown linerboard plant Dec. 14. The shutdown, which goes into effect at the end of the month, puts 417 people out of a job.

Houseman agrees that, while emotions ran high and reactions were varied, there was a limited amount of shock among the employees he spoke with. In the wake of Smurfit-Stone's bankruptcy filing in January, the company has increasingly looked at the high-cost Frenchtown mill as a liability.

"The decision was rooted in our commitment to the company's long-term growth and profitability," Smurfit-Stone spokesman Mike Mullin told the Independent.

Smurfit-Stone is obligated under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act to maintain employee wages and benefits for the next 60 days. Workers could enter a two-year retraining program aimed at giving them new workforce skills, and Houseman says he's made the rapid introduction of Frenchtown employees into that program a priority.

"We're trying to ease into a devastating situation," says Houseman, who was elected last month to represent Ward 2 in Missoula's City Council.

But the potential for reeducation does little to lighten the mood at the Frenchtown Club. It's not that Gibbs and Evans feel betrayed, more that they feel victimized by a corporation. The Frenchtown mill doesn't have the same family feel it did under previous owners, Evans says.

"It's not because we didn't make [Smurfit-Stone] money, because we made them a lot of money," he says, hinting at the $1.4 million in bonuses issued to the company's top five executive officers in early January. "In order to eliminate a high-cost mill, they shut it down. That's all they give a shit about. It's not about the people who work there. It's not about the years and the sacrifices people made out there. It's all about the profit margin."

Evan's wife Tess intervenes, trying to cool her husband down. She and Evans mark their 15th wedding anniversary on Dec. 17. They're not depressed, Tess says. They just have to "regroup."

Evans inserts one more point before sliding $5 across the counter for another beer. Missoula can expect to see a ripple effect from the closure, the reach of which no one will be able to grasp for months. For instance, United Way states that contributions from Frenchtown mill employees have totaled more than $1.4 million since 1997. Houseman equates the losses in salary alone to an $18 million annual hit to the area's economy.

The big-picture issues only briefly come up at the Frenchtown Club. Those will have to be sorted out later, Gibbs says, and will be something the entire community must deal with. For now, he and Evans are stuck mourning the end of the mill and cursing the executives who decided to announce its fate 10 days before Christmas.

"They were dying," Gibbs says, "to get this fucking notification on a Christmas card: 'Merry fucking Christmas, we're shutting the mill down.'"

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