EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — In the gloomy days that immediately followed the February shutdown of the local paper mill, mill workers would gather in town neighborhoods and walk every morning, sometimes for miles, Greg Libby says.
They’d be in groups of three or four. They would discuss the weather, sports, their families. But the purpose of the walks was to talk about the mill, get the latest in news and rumor about when the Great Northern Paper Co. LLC plant would restart, Libby said.
“We stopped that quite a little while ago. We were doing that back when nobody had anything to do and it was a good way to get information,” Libby said Monday. “Now you might just see some guys out walking with their wives.
“I think people have gone on with their lives. I think this third time that this mill has gone down like this, and people aren’t waiting [for a restart] anymore,” Libby added.
You might think this Labor Day weekend finds the 53-year-old Libby feeling depressed at the end of a 33-year career at the mill, which saw him rise to the rank of superintendent of the mill’s recycling department.
But he isn’t. Now he and his son, 26-year-old Matthew, run Libby Product Distributors, hauling potato chips to 32 stores from East Millinocket to Vanceboro and Oakfield. And Labor Day — a holiday created by organized labor that is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers — still means a great deal to him.
“Like Veterans Day means a lot to a veteran,” he said.
State leaders marked the holiday with statements and appearances extolling the virtues of American labor.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage wished Mainers a safe and happy Labor Day via Facebook. In gubernatorial campaign statements, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent challenger Eliot Cutler lauded organized labor.
Michaud pushed for trade protection initiatives and said of Labor Day “the promise of the American Dream — working hard and earning a good living — continues to inspire me to keep up the fight for sound economic policies that benefit all of us.”
“Let us also remember that there is much work to be done to make Maine a place of opportunity for all,” Cutler said. “We have fallen behind, and we must get to work rebuilding Maine’s economy so that all of our fellow citizens — whatever their age, wherever they live — are able to find work, earn a decent wage and reach their full potential.”
Two union members attending a Democratic Party campaign event in Brewer on Labor Day said they feared unionism was under attack.
“I am worried about it, but I believe in the power of unions,” said Michelle Dunphy, a member of Communications Workers of America Local 1400, which is embroiled in a fight with Fairpoint Communications over contract negotiations. “I am worried because of the declining overall membership. I think that unions do support the middle class, but that we are losing ground.”
Another FairPoint customer service representative, Terri Ennis, criticized the company for walking away from contract negotiations, which she described as an anti-union move.
In discussing the Katahdin region, the statements of United Steelworkers Union representative Duane Lugdon echoed Cutler’s. The region, he said, is nothing like what it used to be, when nearly 10,000 workers worked at the East Millinocket and Millinocket paper mills.
The region’s remaining mill and largest single employer, GNP, laid off 212 of 256 workers Feb. 6, devastating the Katahdin region’s already fragile economy, which typically has double the state’s unemployment average. LePage recently told workers several entrepreneurs are interested in the paper mill, but he did not say whether its owner, Cate Street Capital, is attached to it. The state is helping find a partner to go with Cate Street, he said.
The mill’s uncertainty leaves people in East Millinocket, Medway and Millinocket jittery, weary and looking for change, Lugdon said.
“If we could get the mill restarted, we’ve got some things on the horizon that could be positive,” Lugdon said. “It’s obviously not easy to see those things if you are looking at unemployment like they are.
“It has been 10 or 15 years since mill ownership was really solid there,” Lugdon continued. “Because of that, people have not had any reason to think that their lives were stable for any lengthy period of time. They would look forward to any opportunity to put their lives together.”
But there are reasons for hope.
The fledgling national park proposal, a plan to build a $120 million pellet mill in Millinocket and several smaller wood businesses give the region some spark, Lugdon said.
“In the Katahdin region, there is not a lot to celebrate, and they have a bleak winter to face,” Lugdon said. “I can’t say that the region is dead by any means. There is a lot of potential there. It is just a matter of getting it started.
“There are folks who are interested in restarting the mill. We know that,” Lugdon added. “Beyond that we won’t speculate.”
Libby and his family aren’t waiting to find out who the mill’s next owner might be. Their jobs pay slightly more than minimum wage, with boosts from trade adjustment assistance funds, and the workday often runs 14 hours. But they are running their own business and think they can grow it further, Libby said.
“(Starting the business) was very therapeutic for me, because since March I haven’t really thought of the mill or anything with it and, like I said, we are working,” Libby said.
The job fulfills for Libby what might be his most important goal: Keeping his sons and grandsons in the region rather than having the mill situation force them to leave in search of decent jobs, he said.
It also shows the naysayers that mill workers are good workers who can make it to a life beyond papermaking.
“Hey, the mill is gone but we’re not. We are going to continue on,” he said.