Georgia-Pacific, a national papermaking giant, plans to close Green Bay’s oldest union paper mill amid a labor revitalization
By John McCracken
Someday soon–maybe this year, but definitely by 2023–the oldest operating paper mill in Green Bay, Wisconsin will shut its doors for good. Now owned by paper production giant Georgia-Pacific, the mill’s 121-year history includes products ranging from napkins to toilet paper, and a unique factor that sets it apart from other Georgia-Pacific mills in Green Bay: it’s the last union shop around.
This mill, located at 500 Day Street and often referred to as the Day Street mill, has been around since 1901. For decades, the mill was owned by Green Bay paper giant Fort Howard Paper. In 1997, Fort Howard Paper joined forces with another Green Bay paper producer, James River Corporation, and formed the Fort James Corporation, which was sold to national paper conglomerate Georgia-Pacific in 2000. Georgia-Pacific was bought by Koch Industries in 2015. Primarily operated by brothers Charles and the late David, Koch Industries has an expansive history of combating organized labor, opposing environmental regulations, and supporting voter suppression efforts.
Just as Georgia-Pacific was coming under the Koch umbrella, Dennis Delie was eyeing his retirement. The Green Bay native and life-long paper mill employee had spent decades at the Day Street mill under various owners, beginning in 1973. “In my case, they hired me as summer help towards the end of my summer term,” Delie said. “They were in a hiring mode and rather than go on to school I ended up hiring on full time and never left.”
Delie, current Secretary and Treasurer for the Wisconsin chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), said it wasn’t uncommon for new employees to be family members of current employees and reap the benefits provided by the Day Street mill’s union. During his time at the Day Street Mill, he was an active United Steelworkers union member. “It’s just a very long history of generations of families coming through those facilities and with them continuing to provide really good family-supporting jobs,” Delie said.
Roughly two hundred people are employed at the Day Street mill. When Delie retired in 2017, the facility was nearly one hundred percent union. Kawleski said that out of the 190 employees affected by the outstanding union, less than ten have yet to accept internal positions. Union employees, if they stay with Georgia-Pacific, will move to one of the company’s remaining non-union facilities.
Georgia-Pacific’s other large mill, known as the Fort Howard mill or Broadway mill, was the only large non-union paper mill along the Fox River. (Papermaking employees at Green Bay Packaging and Procter & Gamble plants in the city are still represented by various unions.) “They kept the folks over there just happy enough from a wage and benefits standpoint where they were pretty comparable to the union facilities,” Delie said, “and just enough to keep the union from really having any kind of real obvious advantage.”
Delie said over the years, it became noticeable that while Georgia-Pacific was not a blatantly anti-union company, investments in the Day Street Mill fell short of the Broadway paper mill. Georgia-Pacific is in the midst of a $500 million Broadway Mill expansion, expected to have finished constructed by 2024. The Day Street Mill saw small investments, but never anything that would secure its financial future.
“I think a lot of us that had been around a while, and probably a lot of folks working there right now, saw (the Broadway Mill expansion) as, ‘that might put the nail in the coffin,’” Delie said. “A company like Georgia-Pacific, they can invest a million dollars in something and turn around and walk away from it a month or two later and not bat an eye on it. When they invest $500 million in something they’re not walking away from that really quick.”
While Wisconsin is known for its dairy to guests and travelers, the state plays a massive role in the paper industry. The state has around thirty-five paper mills and produces an estimated $13.7 billion worth of products. Green Bay’s proximity to the Fox River connects it to the long legacy of Fox Valley and other regional Wisconsin paper producers, an industry experiencing major shifts and plant closures in recent years.
In the late ‘80s, paper conglomerate International Paper, which had twenty-two domestic mills across the country, including Maine and Pennsylvania, locked out more than three thousand workers who went on strike after the company threatened to cut nearly two hundred jobs. De Pere’s International Paper plant fired 370 union workers who went on strike and replaced them with non-union employees. The strike was covered across the country and pitted steadfast union members and non-union workers against each other. (“It’s brother against brother, father against son,” Claire Therrien, member of a Maine papermaking family, told The Washington Post at the time.)
More recently, nearby paper plants in Appleton and Neenah have shuttered. n 2020, the Verso plant in Wisconsin Rapids saw major layoffs after its owners decided to idle the plant. Laying off more than nine hundred employees in phases, the Verso closure continues to have ripple effects for Wisconsin Rapids. In the face of closures, local paper-making and economic development agencies are clamoring for $100 million in federal Build Back Better funds.
For Delie, the division between a union Day Street mill and a non-union Broadway mill has been decades in the making. He said that just like he was brought on to be a union employee by his union family members, workers at the Broadway mill saw the same generational workforce, sans the union benefits provided by the mill’s United Steelworkers union. “Whenever there were efforts to try and organize (the Broadway mill), you’re always up against ‘Well, we’ve been this way for years and things have really been pretty good and why would we want to change any of that?” Delie said. “And of course, anytime somebody goes out and tries to spearhead an organizing drive, you’re somewhat at risk.”
Jon Shelton, an associate professor at UW-Green Bay and member of the Wisconsin Labor History Society, said Wisconsin has generally followed national labor trends since the 1980s and into modern-day, with declines in membership occurring in the last decade. “Particularly after 2015, when the state passed a Right to Work law,” Shelton said, “it has been more difficult for private sector unions to retain members.”
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is designed to make it hard for a company to decertify a union. But “one strategy a company could use,” Shelton said, “would be to deprioritize a union facility and prioritize the one that’s non-union. Just simply move resources and then eventually close down the plant.”
In that light, the deprioritization and closure of the Day Street plant could be seen as a way to circumvent a plant’s union contract in silence and avoid more dramatic and headline-grabbing scuffles, such as the neighboring community of De Pere’s 1987 International Paper company strike. “Once the workers have a union election and vote to have a union represent them and then get a collectively bargained contract, it’s very difficult to go in the other direction,” Shelton said.
Georgia-Pacific, unsurprisingly, does not cite the mill’s union status as a reason for closure. Spokesperson Mike Kawleski said that, besides the Broadway Mill expansion, the past three multi-million dollar investments the paper company has made have been in union facilities. “Day Street being union was not a factor in the decision to close it down,” Kawleski said. “Day Street mill’s financial picture just wasn’t as attractive as some other facilities.”
But the inevitable closure of one of the city’s oldest unionized paper mills comes at a time of revitalized interest in organized labor at large corporations, such as Amazon and Starbucks, as well as other drives to create worker-owned cooperatives in the Rust Belt and Midwest and learn from labor history in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic’s enormous effect on working-class labor and organizing in the country.
Green Bay has certainly been feeling this shift in the manufacturing landscape. The news of Day Street’s closure was rippled across Green Bay and the larger Fox Valley papermaking region and economy. In the face of the city’s changing manufacturing landscape, Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich told the Green Bay Press-Gazette:
“The Day Street Mill has been such an important part of our economy and heritage for 120-plus years. Papermaking really built this community and made it what it is today.” ■
John McCracken is a Green Bay, Wisconsin journalist who covers environmental concerns, business development, community issues, music, art, and Midwest culture. His work has appeared in The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, Great Lakes Now – Detroit Public Television, The Capital Times, In These Times, Belt Magazine, Tone Madison, Bandcamp Daily, Loudwire, Milwaukee Record, and more. He publishes a Green Bay news and culture newsletter called The NEWcomer and can be found on Twitter @jmcjmc451.
Cover image by Chris Harvey.
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