Employees hit hard by the news

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 24, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; For some employees of International Paper’s Natchez mill, shock and uncertainty were the order of the day Thursday.

That is when IP execs announced that by the middle of this year &045; not Manager Steve Olsen knows the exact date yet &045; the 52-year-old mill will shut its doors.

&uot;We were expecting a few layoffs due to wood shortages, but nothing like this,&uot; said Steve Bass, who has worked at the mill for 14 years.

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&uot;I didn’t expect this until I heard rumors yesterday,&uot; said employee George Robinson. &uot;It really caught me off guard.&uot;

Bill Hancock &045; who, like Bass and Robinson, is a longtime employee and union official &045; said he saw some signs of distress.

The mill was up for sale for 18 months, and it was clear that chemical cellulose, Natchez’s product, was not IP’s core business any longer, Hancock said.

Also, he knew that due to a shortage of wood, half of the mill would close temporarily in February &045; a planned shutdown that union officials were told Thursday will happen as planned.

Still, employees were shocked and saddened by the announcement that the mill would close altogether, Hancock said.

&uot;I’ve been with the IP family for a long, long time,&uot; he said. &uot;I can remember eight or 10 years ago that this mill was carrying a lot of other industries. ŠThat’s part of what’s so sad.&uot;

While he said the announcement &uot;wasn’t totally unexpected,&uot; employee Rayford Freeman said he was upset by the fact that the news got out to media outlets, in some cases, before all employees were told the


&uot;I’m on the graveyard shift, and my wife woke me up to say it was on the radio,&uot; said Freeman, a 34-year employee of the mill. &uot;I just think it was handled badly.&uot;

&uot;We’ve been shaky, the market’s been bad. It’s been tough, but we were trying,&uot; said Kim Britt, a mechanic at the plant for 15 years. &uot;We were working hard to turn things around.&uot;

Britt’s father and brother-in-law are also longtime employees.

&uot;I’ve been out there since I was 20,&uot; said Britt, who admitted the news still had not hit her yet. She isn’t sure what she will do in the future.

&uot;It’s all I know, all I’ve ever done. I spend more time out there than I do at home. I was praying to retire out there.&uot;

Tommy &uot;Blackie&uot; Williams, a 34-year employee, was more optimistic about plans for the future.

&uot;We’re going to make it,&uot; he said. &uot;I’m going to stay with it until the put the lock on the gate.&uot;

Other employees were cautiously optimistic as well. &uot;It is even possible we could save the facility, but I can’t get into that right now,&uot; Robinson said Thursday morning.

&uot;I’m hopeful,&uot; Hancock said, adding that some IP employees plan to talk to state officials to see if anything can be done to save the mill.

But if the mill cannot be saved, most employees who aren’t of retirement age will have to move elsewhere to find jobs, said those interviewed Thursday.

&uot;I imagine most skilled people would have to leave the area to find jobs,&uot; maybe as many as 50 to 60 percent of IP’s workforce, Hancock said.

&uot;There’s not that much here in the way of jobs, especially not higher-paying jobs,&uot; said Bass. &uot;There’s a good many people who are of the age to retire, but plenty aren’t. As union leaders, we’ve got to work to get the best deal we can for all our employees.&uot;

Still, as of Thursday, IP officials had not given any closure dates to employees. Olsen, in a Thursday press conference, said even he has not yet been given those dates.

So, with the start of severance negotiations between IP and union officials, Robinson said, &uot;we’ll just have to pray about it.&uot;

Even as they absorbed what the closure will mean to their own families, Williams and Britt worried about the community as well.

&uot;It’s going to be devastating,&uot; Britt said. &uot;It’s going to radiate out.&uot;

&uot;It is devastating to the community,&uot; Williams said. &uot;This community’s got to pull together. We’ve got to work hard.&uot;