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The shifting industrial landscape, by way of a converted paper mill #makerbusiness

A great piece in the New York times tell the story of a single paper mill in Combined Locks, Wisconsin. While the focus is on just one small plant, the story of Combined Locks is very much a story about American industry and what might be on the horizon.

The recent manufacturing decline in the midwest isn’t news to anyone.

In 2000, there were roughly 49,600 paper manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin, according to state figures. By 2017, that work force had declined to about 30,000; the paper industry in the Fox Valley shed half its workers over that time period. Last year, Kimberly-Clark closed one of its Wisconsin plants and received a $28 million state tax subsidy to help keep another location open.

The question that the U.S. is dealing with now is, where to go from here. Much of today’s politics is emphasizing industrial revival, in rejection of outsourcing and global trade in an attempt to bring back industries from the past. The Combined Locks plant is testament adaptation and change.

China is facing its own industrial issues, with a burgeoning middle class and growing environmental concerns, it has decided to cut off the import of a ton of recyclable materials and scrap. This decision, along with the increasing demand of online retail, has made cardboard increasingly scarce, and thus much more of a viable American industry.

The mill’s new owners, who called themselves Midwest Paper Group, eventually agreed that it should be in operation. Across the country, failed white paper mills were being converted to brown to feed the cardboard-box boom, and Midwest followed suit.

A big step was persuading the union to agree to a new set of working conditions. The pay stayed largely the same — an average hourly wage of $25.50 — but the company would not contribute to 401(k) funds. Most significantly, the workers would be required to take on duties that previously had been performed by several employees.

The plant is humming along, but the revival isn’t painless for the workers — these jobs are now less lucrative and more demanding, but they exist, and thats something.

A sample of the mill’s first batch of brown paper was brought to a lab about 20 miles away. The sample was used to make a small section of a cardboard box and then put through a series of strength tests.

It was around 5 p.m. when the mill got the results. “It’s good,” the lab reported.

The mill was making paper again.

Read the whole story here.


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