Shutdown will cost 640 jobs

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 24, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; All 640 members of the &uot;IP family&uot; will lose their jobs over the next six months as International Paper’s Natchez mill closes by mid-year.

IP blamed the closure on a deteriorating market for the chemical cellulose the mill manufactures.

IP’s executives have made it clear that they get out of the chemical cellulose business altogether, and Natchez is the only IP mill that makes it, said Manager Steve Olsen.

Email newsletter signup

Meanwhile, it will take several days for management and union officials to begin to negotiate severance plans for displaced workers.

&uot;I bet 50 to 60 percent of IP’s employees will have to relocate to find jobs. There’s plenty once you get 100 miles outside of Natchez,&uot; said Bill Hancock, an electrician at the mill for 26 years, who said he regrets having to leave &uot;the IP family.&uot;

&uot;Our children Š have to go elsewhere to find jobs. Looks like we might have to follow them.&uot;

IP’s latest news follows more than two years during which the 52-year-old mill was for sale, laid off 142 workers and was taken off the market when no seller was found. It also follows a string of bad news for the Miss-Lou’s economy.

Ethyl Petroleum, with 40 workers, closed in spring 2001. Titan Tire scaled its plant down to 12 people in April 2000 and hasn’t restarted. A Johns Manville plant closed in September, leaving 138 out of work. Earlier this month, Alcoa declared its Vidalia Works &uot;non-strategic&uot; and put it up for sale.

IP announced in June 2000 that it was looking for a buyer for the mill, then announced in October 2001 that it would lay off 142 of 728 employees. A buyer was not found and, in February 2002, it took the mill off the market, saying it would instead look for ways to tighten up operations and find potential markets.

And that’s exactly what happened, Olsen said. &uot;Our employees have done a remarkable job of responding to everything we asked them to do Š (and) worked amazingly hard,&uot; he said.

The mill’s 519 hourly and 71 salaried workers have made the plant one of IP’s safest, and one that makes products that meet or exceed customers’ expectations, Olsen said.

&uot;It’s not fair for a hard-working, caring group of employees like ours to have happen to them what’s happened to them,&uot; he said.

Still, Olsen has said in recent months that an influx of cheap imported forest products; recessions in Asia, Europe and the United States and obsolete equipment at the mill make it difficult to turn a profit.

Moreover, the chemical cellulose the mill produces is used chiefly in fabrics and cigarette filters.

With fabrics like polyester taking more of that market, and with an increasingly soft market for cigarette filters, &uot;it’s been a very difficult market,&uot; Olsen said in a press conference late Thursday afternoon. &uot;The price (for cellulose) is just not there.&uot;

Meanwhile, the Natchez IP mill faces competition from domestic cellulose makers like Weyerhaeuser and several overseas companies. One such company, Austria-based Lenzing, was considering buying the mill in late 2001, but the mill’s unions voted down contract changes proposed by that company.

Is there hope for selling or otherwise saving the mill at this point? Probably not, if IP tried to sell the mill for 18 months and could not, Olsen.

IP union official George Robinson said Thursday morning, shortly after company officials met with union presidents to break the news, that &uot;it is even possible we could save the facility, but I can’t get into that right now.&uot;

Meanwhile, Natchez Mayor F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith said by telephone from Washington Thursday that there has been talk of a possible employee buyout of the plant.

Olsen would not comment on that option, saying &uot;it’s unfair (to employees) to speculate.&uot;

As of Thursday afternoon, a state Rapid Response Team had not been called to advise workers on the benefits they are eligible for and assist them in finding other jobs, but such services are available.

The local Mississippi Employment Security Commission office expects to receive an influx of job seekers after employees find out the terms of severance.

&uot;We do know that the local (community) can’t absorb these jobs,&uot; said Peggy Ballard, manager of Natchez’s MESC office. As far as new jobs are concerned, she said, &uot;we’ll advise them to look online in either the statewide or nationwide job banks.&uot;