Paper City - Part III of III

The End of an Era – The Passing of "The Paper City" Part III of III

Submitted by Dr. Paul Loatman

City Historian


By the mid-1950s, Westvaco was pumping nearly $15 million a year into the local economy, a figure which would need to be multiplied many times over to measure its impact in today’s dollars. The local mill made high-grade white paper products, including those used for envelopes, mimeographing, duplicating, and notably, U.S. postage stamps. Part of the success in keeping the aging mill competitive at this time was the development of the NSSC pulping process which enabled Westvaco to overcome the declining supply of necessary softwoods it used to produce its more expensive products. During the late 1940s and 1950s, the number of production workers at the mill climbed to nearly 1100, and an additional 200 salaried employees made the mill’s payroll the most significant economic engine in the community by far.

During World War II, threats of secondary boycotts by its customers and federal contracting rules required Westvaco to accept some form of unionization at its six plants. In Mechanicville’s case, the production employees were represented by District 50 of the United Mine Workers Union beginning in 1944. District 50 was a "grab-bag" C.I.O. affiliate bargaining on behalf of workers in many industries with no experience negotiating contracts for papermakers. Workers at Westvaco’s other five mills were represented by the United Pulp and Paper Workers Union, and their specialized approach probably accounted for the fact that they won better contracts for their constituents than the District 50 negotiators did for those in Mechanicville. By the mid-1950s, local papermakers found themselves low men on the totem pole in a number of areas: they were the lowest paid members in the Westvaco chain of mills; they were paid less than paperworkers throughout the industry; and they were paid less than other manufacturing workers in the Capital District, their annual earnings in 1955 being 12 percent below those of other production workers in the area. A growing awareness of these facts by the labor force here meant that negotiating contracts was going to become much more complicated in the future.

When the UMW contract with Westvaco expired on May 28, 1956, the men stayed on the job for another two months while bargaining continued. However, when a stalemate was reached, the 934 production workers walked off the job in July, 1956, triggering the first of two long strikes which shut down the mill for eight of the next thirty-four months. Although the issues involved are too complex to be dealt with here in a brief article, newspaper accounts of the time, a review of court records related to the strikes, and recent interviews with some of those involved with the events reveals that they were complex and deep-seated. Complicating matters, workers felt betrayed by the UMW and in August, 1957, they voted to choose a new bargaining agent, the United Pulp and Paperworkers Union, only eight months after having ended their four-month long strike the previous November. Five months after the new union arrived on the scene, Westvaco’s work force walked out again after their contract expired and once more, mill production would be shut down for over four months.

Charges of ethnic discrimination, (openly discussed by President David Luke at a stockholders annual meeting in New York in March, 1959), labor militancy which both management and union forces may have underestimated, and the perception that Mechanicville workers continued to lag behind their counterparts at Westvaco’s other five mills meant that finding labor peace here was not an easy task. Company use of management personnel as production workers, picket line violence and white collar employees’ taunting of strikers, court orders restraining both sides in the dispute, and the intervention of Governor Rockefeller all transpired during the drawn-out stoppage. Each side came away bloodied by the affair, and while they were increasingly wary of each other, this would mark the last time that either Westvaco would allow a labor contract to expire without resolution, or that the union would walk out. Strikes became a thing of the past.

Throughout the 1960’s, employment at the mill held steady, though the number of production workers had declined probably to about 700 by the end of the decade. The company advertised weekly throughout the period for new shift-workers, but the labor market tightened as younger men went off to college or to fight in Vietnam. Rumors had floated many times over the years regarding the mill’s possible closing, but nothing had ever come of them. Then, as if out of nowhere, Westvaco shut down its Mechanicville operations in June of 1971. Hundreds of men who had spent their entire working careers in the mill suddenly found themselves unemployed.

How did the "Paper City" arrive at the point where its leading industry pulled up stakes and left town? A number of factors were in play, including the younger generation’s lack of enthusiasm for following their fathers and grandfathers into the mill. Supplies of wood in nearby forests had declined, a consequence of decades of clear-cutting in the Adirondacks. Westvaco was faced with the prospect of making significant capital investments in a mill site which was almost 100 years old. Upgrading an old facility could be more expensive than starting over elsewhere. But possibly most significant of all, both the federal and state governments had declared that the era when the Hudson River would be treated as a great sewer were over. Some laughed when Governor Nelson Rockefeller announced that the river would be restored to its long-lost majesty in twenty years, but no one laughed when they saw the stiff fines private corporations and municipalities would have to pay for lack of compliance with new environmental regulations. The days when Westvaco and other paper mills’ chemical wastes would cover the river from shore to shore were over.

Shortly after Westvaco’s announcement of its intended closings, a group of white-collar employees at the Mechanicville plant organized the KMM Corp. and made a cash offer to secure a 90-day option on the local mill. When a deal seemed close at hand, Westvaco backed away, leading KMM to charge that the paper manufacturer had bargained in bad faith, using the possibility of an impending sale to wheedle tremendous tax assessment reductions from the local school district and other local government agencies. KMM spokesmen further charged that the Luke-owned operation never had any intention of fulfilling its highly publicized offer to sell its facility to the highest bidder. Naturally, Westvaco persistently denied all such allegations in the local press.

In late May 1973, KMM filed suit against Westvaco, arguing that it had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to survey pollution problems at Mechanicville in hope of remediating them. Having disclosed its findings to Westvaco as part of a possible purchase agreement, KMM believed that Westvaco had used the potential purchaser to undertake the expensive surveys that Westvaco itself would have had to pay for before it could dispose of the plant. On this basis, KMM hoped to recover through court actions large outlays of cash it had expended in anticipation of its purchase of the mill. However, the merits of this case were never resolved legally because Westvaco sold the facility to Saratoga Board Mills Corp., an action which led a state district court judge to dismiss KMM’s suit.

The new owners of the mill spoke of employing as many as 250 papermakers, but Saratoga Board’s Vice-President told the local press on September 20, 1973 that the company was having trouble enlisting skilled craftsmen because many of them regarded the firm as a "fly-by-night operation." Through no fault of its own, the company opened its doors during the worst recession since the 1930’s and conditions would only worsen as the impact of the first Arab oil embargo quadrupled heating oil and fuel prices that winter. Saratoga Board secured public grants to sustain its operations, but in a short time, it went into bankruptcy after having begun the process of stripping the former Westvaco mill of anything of value. Within a few years of its closing, the six papermaking machines had been removed and what was once the site of the world’s largest bookpaper mill resembled a bombed-out shell. Though a waste paper mill has continued in business here until recently, with the shut-down of the Westvaco site in 1971, Mechanicville’s days as "The Paper City" were gone for good.

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On August 29, 2001, Westvaco announced plans to merge with the Mead Corp., forming a new firm which will have assets valued at $10 billion. Two days later, the company noted that a "strategic realignment" would lead it to shut down its Tyrone, Pennsylvania plant, a facility it had purchased in 1899, five years prior to its acquisition of the Duncan Mill. As with the case here thirty years ago, it has been reported that production will be transferred "to more modern facilities."