Pulp Friction

A New Hampshire Mill Town's Primary Concern: What Else but the Economy?

That's Cynthia Girard's version of what has happened to Berlin. Her neighbors see it similarly, but in their dramas various other foreign countries star as villain. Brazil's wood is too cheap. The Chinese don't pay their workers enough. The Canadians subsidize their paper industry. So do the Scandinavians. It's become an article of faith here that these countries, unburdened by America's lousy trade agreements, are ruining the region's economy, which at last count had the third highest unemployment rate in New Hampshire.

What's called Nexfor Fraser Papers provides, for the time being, well-paid jobs to more than 500 people in this bucolic town, which is tucked in a valley between the Great North Woods and the spectacular Presidential Range of the White Mountains. The mill provides work as well not only for loggers, truckers, and stores in surrounding towns, but also for boilermakers, chemical suppliers, and related New England businesses. But the mill's decline has meant that Berlin, once a boomtown, is shrinking as more and more youngsters leave after high school.

The mill is actually two mills, both built in the late 1800s and which drew workers from Canada and Northern Europe. At the pulp plant in Berlin proper, New Hampshire's own hardwood is chipped, treated by chemicals, and cooked, then turned into the watery substance called slurry, which gushes down two large tubes that follow the Androscoggin River for several miles to the paper plant, in nearby Gorham. The slurry is dried in large sheets and processed on paper machines, and then shipped to customers, some of them in the Middle East and Asia.

The siege of Berlin: Howard Dean's troops take over the junior high gym for a speech.
photo: Cary Conover
The siege of Berlin: Howard Dean's troops take over the junior high gym for a speech.

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Related Article:
"Mondo New Hampshire: All Quiet on the Northern Front—But a General Alarm Spreads Through the State" by James Ridgeway

The volatile international market for pulp and paper means that Berlin can get steamrolled with little warning and then bounce back and then get steamrolled again.

Trade journalist Diane Keaton notes that the industry is extremely capital-intensive—it costs a lot of money to operate such mills. In recent years, looser trade policies, the rise of the euro, and larger, state-of-the-art mills all spelled trouble for operations like Berlin's. It's not only sneakers that are flowing into the U.S. South Korea and China are just two of the several countries, she added, from which we import paper.

As for Berlin's once highly profitable heavily wooded countryside, other countries are able to grow wood faster and at a lower labor cost than in North America.

There's a question, Keaton noted, whether mill towns like Berlin can ever again compete successfully. "Often, when these communities rally to save a mill, they make the same futile arguments," she said. "It's just a much bigger picture than what they seem to be addressing." The answer for some of the smaller mills, she thinks, lies in identifying niche markets for which they can produce a specialty like thermal paper, instead of copy paper.

Dick Gephardt might have an edge here. He's already been endorsed by the mill workers' international union, based largely on the Missourian's opposition to both NAFTA and the China trade bill, and Eddie DeBlois, president of Local 75, is trying to rally his 850 members to go along. That's good news for Gephardt, who's lagging in the New Hampshire polls.

DeBlois, though, knows that Berlin's problems are deeper than a presidential primary race. "We can survive," he said, "but we need to get into certain markets, into paper grades that are difficult to make."

And Berliners themselves may have to change, too. Residents have shown that they simply don't like to leave the area, even when the mill is at its lowest ebb. Mark Belanger, who manages the local state employment office, recalls that when American Tissue folded, its employees qualified for a federal program that provided job retraining, money to go on interviews, and 90 percent of moving costs should families need to relocate for work. But the mill—when it's running—is the best-paying job around, with workers earning an average of $16 or $17 an hour. So laid-off workers hesitate to take other jobs, hoping that the mill will hire them back when things pick up.

"Out of 860 people," he said of the workers laid off on in 2001, "only two took the money to move."

Which of the candidates understands that facet of life here the best? Howard Dean, as the former governor of the state next door, is seen by many as a local. He spoke to a crowd at the high school gym from the perspective of a long-suffering neighbor. "It's tough in the North Country," he told them. "We want jobs, but we don't want to change things too much."


Joe Lieberman's a different kind of New Englander, perhaps. During an appearance in one of his former staffers' well-appointed cottages in the area, one attendee asked him about the Patriot Act and the post-9-11 detentions, and received the kind of answer that drives liberal voters nuts. "I wouldn't hold anyone without giving them the right to counsel," Lieberman said, which was as far as he was willing to go.

Another person questioned Lieberman about the loss of manufacturing jobs; the man had worked for a local company that made rubber gloves, he said, and that company had closed because of competition from China.

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