Employees reflect on the paper mill that gave them and their families security and stability

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 30, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; After 24 years, Margaret Steele is about to leave the only job she’s ever known.

It isn’t by choice &045; at 46, she’s a full nine years away from being able to retire.

International Paper’s Natchez mill, where she serves as a human resources specialist, is shutting its doors at the end of the month, forcing her to take a job 35 miles away in Tensas Parish, La.

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The mill hasn’t been just another paycheck for Steele and two other employees who met Friday afternoon to talk about their time at the facility.

Instead, it’s been security for their families, a place to make lifelong friends, a way to be able to stay in their hometown.

&uot;It’s meant a home to live in, education for some, and food on the table for a lot of people,&uot; said Ken Barfoot, an instrumentation and electrical planner who has worked at the mill since January 1969.

They said that’s why, when production stopped at the mill the week of July 13, it hit them so hard. The facility and its people filled a variety of roles in their lives.

&uot;It was 2:30 in the afternoon, and you heard four long blasts&uot; on the plant’s whistle, Barfoot remembered. &uot;You thought someone was hurt at first, that that’s what it meant Š but they just did it because that was the end.&uot;

For Barfoot, the news of IP’s announcement in late January that the mill would close in mid-summer came by word of mouth, from a customer at the video store where his wife is a manager. He was off duty at that hour.

&uot;My wife turned to me and said, ‘Do you know anything about this?’ and I said, ‘No, but I can sure make a call,’&uot; Barfoot said. &uot;So I called up here and sure enough, it was true.&uot;

It was a shock to finally hear the news &045; and it wasn’t, Barfoot said. He wasn’t prepared for the announcement to finally be made but, like many co-workers, he knew the mill had been going through some tough times for a while.

The writing appeared on the wall when, in June 2000 that it was looking for a buyer for the mill, Barfoot said.

IP laid off more than 140 mill workers later that year, a buyer was not found and, in February 2002, it took the mill off the market. Instead, IP said it would look for ways to tighten up operations and find potential markets.

But in January, IP officials made the decision to shut down the mill in its 53rd year of operation due to a poor market for the chemical cellulose it produces.

Still, in a way, Barfoot said, &uot;I never expected it to happen. Š I’m 55, so I can retire, and that’s what I’m doing. But I’d like to have two or three more years with IP, if I could.&uot;

But Ed Ealey, a woodyard operator at the Natchez mill, said that in recent weeks, as he saw workers scramble to finish and ship product, clean and inspect equipment, and load their tools into their trucks, it really dawned on him.

&uot;When you see things happening so fast, you know something’s going on,&uot; Ealey said.

If there’s any bitterness, Steele, Ealey and Barfoot didn’t show it Friday. For one thing, who would they rail against?

&uot;It’s agonizing. But when those stockholders sat around that shiny table and made that decision,&uot; Barfoot said, &uot;that was it.&uot;

&uot;It was no fault of anyone at this mill that it’s closing down,&uot; Steele said, tapping the table with her finger for emphasis. &uot;It was strictly a business decision.&uot;

Not that there wasn’t some worry when the announcement was made, or that there isn’t still some uneasiness.

Ealey &045; at 53, caught just two years from retirement age &045; is the first to admit that, especially for production workers, jobs are hard to come by without moving away.

He had to interview with IP’s Bastrop, La., mill. He had no choice, with one daughter in college and another about to enter college and the cost of tuition climbing.

Of the Natchez mill’s production workers, 26 interviewed for Bastrop positions and six were hired, including Ealey.

&uot;I’ll be working on a paper machine,&uot; Ealey said, his voice sounding just a little lost.

For Ealey, who took a job in production at Natchez in 1976 after a stint in Vietnam and three years with the Army Reserves, competing against so many other hard-worked, skilled workers was tough.

&uot;I tell you one thing &045; I’d hate to have to be the one to choose who’s going to get the job. They’re all good,&uot; Ealey said, later adding that it’s hard to look a co-worker in the eye &uot;when you got the job and he didn’t.&uot;

That goes double when they’re not only your co-workers, but your friends.

Ealey compares the feeling among production employees at IP to the camaraderie he shared with fellow soldiers while serving in the Gulf War.

&uot;That’s what I’m struggling with &045; not seeing my buddies all the time,&uot; Steele said.

It surprised Ealey, the way that on Friday, the last day for 25 to 30 employees, he and his co-workers laughed and talked not only about the good memories they shared, but also about what were once their worst disagreements.

&uot;It’s like, we’re really separating here,&uot; Ealey said.

From the corporate side, IP has done a host of things to make the transition to another way of life &045; retirement, another job, going to back to college &045; easier on employees, the three said.

The mill has hosted job fairs, held resume workshops, helped workers find money for college. And through the years, employees have been given training that would make them valuable to many industries, they said.

&uot;Our IE (instrumentation and electrical) employees I’d put up against anyone anywhere,&uot; Barfoot said, his chin rising just slightly.

&uot;I’m privileged to work with this group of people,&uot; Steele said.

After just a few minutes, they’ve got to get back to their posts. After all, Steele’s got plenty of boxes to pack. But they take the time to give each other a smile and a pat on the back as they walk down the hall.

&uot;Good luck to you, man,&uot; Barfoot called out over this shoulder.

&uot;You too, you hear?&uot; Ealey called back as he turned the corner.