Pulp Friction


BERLIN, NEW HAMPSHIRE—If this were anywhere else but a New Hampshire mill town on the brink of a presidential primary, Joe Lieberman’s Secret Service detail might have yanked Mark Milstein out of his seat at the Tea Birds Café, just to play it safe.

The burly printer looked angry as he waited at a back table for the Democratic candidate to get around to him. When Lieberman came over and sat down, they shook hands and spoke for five minutes in tones so hushed that even the reporters sitting at the next table had trouble hearing. That’s the kind of audience you command as a voter in New Hampshire these days.

George Bush may be trying to distract the populace with talk about space exploration, but Milstein, like his fellow Berliners, is clearly most concerned about the economy—and constantly annoyed about the loss of jobs overseas. Like so many other towns in America, Berlin, population 10,000, has just been buffeted by another round of layoffs. Foreign-trade policies aren’t solely to blame: There are New Hampshire jobs heading for other states.

Which is not to say that Milstein, like other Americans gazing nervously into their futures, doesn’t want to be distracted, on a cold day, from the equally frigid New Hampshire economy.

“Why are you against the space program?” Milstein asked Lieberman during their little summit talk. The candidate hung tough, replying, “I’d still rather spend the money helping manufacturers keep jobs here.” Milstein considered this, still looking sullen. “It’s just something else to think about,” he said, and then cracked bitterly about the current administration’s attitude: “Dick Cheney makes Spiro Agnew look like the Virgin Mary.”

A week away from the New Hampshire primary, the Democratic candidates have taken careful note of Berlin’s troubles. They get that it’s a Democratic island in a state that has more Republicans than Democrats and more independents than either. National politics has become as local as it could possibly get. All the contenders are prowling around this remote town (the locals pronounce it Berlin). During the same week Lieberman made his rounds in Tea Birds, Howard Dean spoke to a few hundred people in the high school gym. John Kerry’s campaign signs are planted at the entrance to town, and Wesley Clark has already glad-handed workers during a shift change at the paper mill. Dick Gephardt, meanwhile, has been endorsed by the mill workers’ influential union local. (That’s the same mill, towns-people proudly claim, that churns out the pulp that Stephen King later uses to churn out his own.)

As of last week, none of the contenders seemed to have a clear-cut lead here, so Berliners had that chance, rare for ordinary Americans, to not only see them around town but even have a reasonable shot at grilling them directly.

As it turned out, Milstein’s extraterrestrial questions weren’t totally off topic.

“I don’t agree with him,” Milstein said about Lieberman’s views on Bush’s moon campaign. “That could create offshoot industries. You could mine asteroids for diamonds.” Milstein pondered Lieberman for a moment and added, “He’s not much of a visionary, in my mind.”

The skyline of a mill town.

(photo: Cary Conover)

Berlin, of course, was shaken by 9-11. Unfortunately, that tragedy was its second in 24 hours. The town’s foundation and its prime source of jobs, its century-old paper mill industry, went bust on September 10, 2001.

Cynthia Girard lost her job, and so did her husband, Roland. But they were luckier than most of their friends. Natives of this remote town in New Hampshire’s North Country, they had worked at the mill since the mid ’70s and had savings to draw on when their jobs disappeared. One of their two children had already grown up and left home, their cars still ran, and they owned their house. Thanks in part to occasional work that Roland, a machinist, picked up, they could pay their bills and keep their health insurance current.

Cynthia found work for a few months assisting the rest of Berlin’s newly unemployed, more than 800 people who had worked for American Tissue, the company that the locals blame for running the mill into the ground. The Girards, who are in their forties, kept afloat until the mill reopened in June 2002 under new ownership, and they got their jobs back. But last October, when the testy market for paper again turned angry, Cynthia Girard and over a hundred of her co-workers were laid off, some of them for the third time.

“I have this hanging over my head,” she said. “There’s no other work here.” Thankfully, she said, Roland still has his mill job. “Other people have lost everything. Their houses, their cars, even their kids’ toys.”

Like a lot of other Berliners, she’s angry about the globalized economy. “NAFTA affects everything,” she said. “They’ve been cutting wood up in Canada and sending it to Finland, where there are no environmental regulations.” The paper comes back to the U.S., she said, available more cheaply than any product the small Berlin mill, with its antiquated equipment and its relatively high wages, could hope to match.

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 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.

This question is the kind of fruit Democrats have gorged themselves on this campaign season, citing statistics about job loss and the Bush administration’s inattention to working Americans and to fair labor and environmental standards abroad. Lieberman, though, didn’t bite—even in this town where international trade is a bogeyman.

“Look, the economy does change,” said Lieberman. During the Clinton era, Lieberman recalled—he brings up Clinton a lot—”we figured it out, we innovated, we created whole new industries.” He pointed out that “there’s no law that can stop” international trade and that “we just have to do better.”

That’s not Howard Dean’s approach these days. He made a point of telling reporters in New Hampshire that he thinks software jobs going to India is a “big problem.”

And he took a big bite out of the tempting local apple. “We don’t get jobs by shipping them overseas,” he said. “Every time the paper mill hiccups here, the whole town gets a cold.”