International Paper employees prepare for mill’s closure this month

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 17, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; At International Paper’s Natchez mill, which is set to phase out production today through Friday, employees are packing up, cleaning up Š and saying goodbye.

IP announced in January that it would close its chemical cellulose division &045; housed only at the 53-year-old Natchez facility &045; due to a poor market for the product.

Of the 600-plus employees the mill had at that time, 432 are left. And most will be there for days after production ceases and the smokestacks stop producing their familiar white clouds on Friday.

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Still, &uot;people are looking around realizing this may be it,&uot; said George Robinson, a lab technician who has been with the mill 14 years. &uot;And we’re like a family.&uot;

Donnie Verucchi, manager of planning and training for the plant’s maintenance division, said he would be hard pressed to find a better bunch of people to work with.

&uot;We haven’t had a better bunch of people&uot; than the 100-plus maintenance workers who are at the mill now, Verucchi said. The fact that the past few months have gone as smoothly as they have, he said, &uot;is a tribute to our employees.&uot;

But many IP workers aren’t content to let their friendships die once they walk out the door &045; a day that will come for most of them when cleanup ends July 31.

Instead, Verucchi said, the Quarter Century Club &045; a group of employees who have been with the mill 25 years or more &045; and a management club both plan to continue meeting even after the mill closes.

High technology will play a role, too. Workers in instrumentation and electrical trades have built a Web site to keep in touch, even as workers spread across the Southeast, going to other IP locations or other companies.

But although some employees have taken jobs in such IP locations Memphis, Pineville, La., North Carolina and Georgia, some are trying their luck here.

That’s especially true for people whose skills can easily transfer to other industries, such as maintenance workers.

&uot;Most folks plan on working in this area, and some are going into business for themselves,&uot; Verucchi said.

In maintenance, he said, &uot;I’ve not talked with any who are down and out because they can’t find work.&uot;

In the mill’s lab, people have been trying to find any jobs they can get, both in town and out, Robinson said. Robinson himself plans to look first in the Miss-Lou and, if nothing else presents itself, then outside the area.

For his part, maintenance office worker Jeff Walker, a 29-year employee of the plant, plans to start a small construction business of his own.

However, he hopes that an employee stock option plan can still be formed for employees to purchase the mill and keep it going. Meetings are still being held this week toward that goal.

&uot;But we’re upbeat,&uot; Walker said.

&uot;We’ve gotten kind of resigned to (the closing). I’m still waiting to see if the ESOP comes through.&uot;