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  • Writer's pictureD. Maurice Kreis

Maine Reconsidered and Regretted: A review of Shredding Paper

Thirty-six years ago this summer, I boarded a flight at National Airport in Washington, where the temperature was in the upper 90s, and not long thereafter deplaned at the Portland International Jetport. On that sunny Maine day, the breeze was fresh and the thermometer was a good 25 degrees lower than it had been along the Potomac. And that's all it took.

[Photo: Munjoy Hill, late summer 2019]

In other words, on a whim, I accepted my employer's offer of a transfer from one of the centers of the newsmaking universe to its forlorn outpost in Portland, Maine. "You're moving where?," a friend asked. "Oregon?"

Fate did not allow Maine to become my permanent home, but the 14 years I spent there were pretty pivotal. They were also something of a squandered opportunity, as I found myself thinking while reading the recently published book Shredding Paper by economist Michael G. Hillard.

Shredding Paper is all about the desiccation of Maine's once nearly omnipotent paper industry. According to Hillard, from 1920 to 1960 Maine was the nation's leading producer of paper, and the Pine Tree State still loomed large in the business until the waning years of the twentieth century. Once upon a time paper came from rags, but then came the technology to transform pulp extracted from the northern forest into paper via the mighty mills that came to be constructed in places like Madawaska, Millinocket, East Millinocket, Baileyville, Waterville, Hinckley, Waterville, Rumford, Jay, and Westbrook. All are either closed or, more commonly, operating as fractions of their former selves.

At the time I moved to Munjoy Hill in 1984, when the wind was right the distinct and ubiquitous odor of pulp production still wafted east into Portland from the mighty S.D. Warren mill in nearby Westbrook. By then S.D. Warren's descendants had long since sold the mill to the conglomerate Scott Paper, but Portland and Westbrook (the locales whose initials account for the Jetport's "PWM" airport code designation) still felt like gritty industrial towns. The mill loomed over Westbrook as its smell spilled into Portland, which featured a big drydock operated by Bath Iron Works, factories cranking out hot dogs and baked beans and loaves of bread, plus a busy port for commercial fishing.

Today Portland is an urban theme park. Munjoy Hill, at the scenic northern end of the Portland peninsula, is primo real estate. The dry dock is gone but the city is a foodie paradise; when I moved there, one couldn't get anything to eat, much less a good meal, after 8:30. And, of course, the Warren mill in Westbrook -- now owned by a South African company called SAPPI -- is down to something like 300 workers and barely operating. The distinctive aroma of the pulp mill no longer wafts eastward to the Portland peninsula on a regular basis.

For my money, here's the most heartbreaking juncture in the story and the most poignant paragraph in Hillard's book:

In 1986 and 1987, Boise Cascade and International Paper Company provoked strikes by making extreme, untenable demands on workers in their Rumford and Jay, Maine, mills. Workers walked out in protest, and the two companies each executed well-laid plans to fire the striking workers and permanently replaced them with nonunion workers (scabs, in union parlance) recruited from across the United States. More than 1,500 striking workers at these two mills lost their jobs, traumatizing their communities.

Also in 1986 and 1987, I was a staff writer at Maine Times -- a bastion of the alternative newsweekly movement and, at the time I was hired, a 'must read' for anyone hoping to keep informed about events in the Pine Tree State. I remember the Jay strike in particular, and to my shame I recall shrugging, more or less. It is only in retrospect, thanks in part to books like Hillards, that the loss of these 1,500 jobs to scabs was probably the development that broke the back of the U.S. labor movement.

Obviously, at some point in 1987 we should have shuttered the Maine Times offices in a quaint former residence in downtown Topsham and decamped for Jay so as to provide gavel-to-gavel -- or, I should say, scab-to-scab coverage of these cataclysmic events. (I guess we could have left the production and sales departments to tend the home fires in Topsham.) Maine Times didn't ignore the strikes -- I recall my colleague Scott Allen (who has since been with the Boston Globe for many years) covering the story with his characteristic alacrity. I guess what I'm saying is that no self-respecting Maine journalist, especially one with a social conscience, should have ignored what was happening at the paper mills. And yet I barely gave the strikes a second thought.

Grateful as I am to Hillard for providing me with this bittersweet revelation, I am left somewhat skeptical about his main point. Since Hillard is an economist he grounds his analysis in the theory of his discipline; Shredding Paper is, in part, an overview of the devolution of the nation's industrial sector from "Chandlerian managerialism" (named for business historian Alfred Chandler) to the "shareholder value" movement and, overall, "financialization." In other words, a balanced approach that acknowledged multiple stakeholders yielded to business strategies that considered maximizing return on shareholder investment -- ASAP -- as the only objective.

Fair enough, but where I might fall off the catwalk (but hopefully not into a giant vat of pulp, as happened to more than a few mill employees) is the point at which something Hillard describes as the "folk political economy" of Maine paperworkers becomes the moral of his story. This, he contends, is the legacy of post-1980s Maine paper mill culture as created on the shop floor.

"Most economists would tell the public that there are objective rules of competition and capital markets, and when the time comes that an enteprise is losing out in competition, or if it generates profits below the cost of capital, deindustrialization is inevitable and contributes to the social good," Hillard writes. But, he adds, "the Maine folk political economy described here" -- i.e., in the concluding chapter of Shredding Paper -- "takes issue with this way of thinking.

"Maine's paper workers' and managers' experience of financialized corporate governance was that it contributed directly to industrial decline. Their insight is that decline was exacerbated by endogenous (or internal) causes: managerial instability, poor decision making, neglect and other fallout from financial engineering, and rapid ownership turnover. It also celebrated the values of reciprocity, class justice, economic security, and what may be viewed as a social democratic ethos associated with the Chandlerian enterprise. Remembered is a form of corporate governance that had room for those values to be embedded in an industrial community that could still meet the demands of a national marketplace."

I sure hope that's true. But I fear it is grounded in a gauzy nostalgia -- one expressed multiple times to Hillard by the workers and family members he interviewed over the course of the two decades it took him to compile all of the information in his book -- for the days when the Maine paper industry was still in its ascendancy. It's sweet to consider that S.D. Warren hired the fabulous architect John Calvin Stevens to design worker housing in Westbrook -- and even sweeter to ponder a time when a paper mill job was a good living for working class Mainers. The folk political economy might be the economics equivalent of a Pete Seeger singalong.

Hillard himself acknowledges as much. "It is important to acknowledge the limits of the political economy these workers remember" he writes. He calls nevertheless for "overturning financialization to put in place better corporate governance," positing two alternatives: "a return to Chandlerian practices or worker ownership."

My money is on the latter. And I hope it's the topic of Hillard's next book, if not the next chapter in the story of the Maine economy. Alas, Maine Times won't be there to cover it; the paper folded -- or maybe it would be more accurate to say it was shredded, by the financialization that has consumed most of the nation';s journalism business -- in 2002. Worker ownership is the best antidote to that economic cataclysm as well.


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