Life Moves On…And So Do the Jobs, After a Town’s Factory Closes

13 Jan

George Robinson and his fellow Natchez, MS workers wanted to save the International Paper plant, in which they worked, from being shut down. In order to save the plant and keep their jobs, they tried to buy the plant using an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. About 11,000 companies in the U.S. now have this plan, covering over 8 million employees. The Natchez workers needed to raise $75 million for the purchase, but failed to do so. The factory is now being demolished, and because work in the area has diminished; George was forced to take a job at another mill 90 miles from his home. Here’s an update on George’s life & his thoughts on the present condition of the labor movement.

Q: Why don’t you start talking personally about how you’ve been since the film ended, what you’ve been up to in terms of your career and your work.

GR: Ok. Since the mill closed, I’ve been very busy. It took about 7 months to find any type of suitable employment and with that I went back to work at International Paper but at another location. Matter of fact, it’s about 90 miles from home, so I commute 90 miles a day to work and back. And I’m still making less money than I was making at the local facilities. But nonetheless it’s better than anything here. All the jobs here are gone. There is no industry. They’ve not been able to recruit any. As a matter of fact, most people here are in dire straits. The spin-off jobs with International Paper went with it. So since then of course personally, all the insurance and all of that, that was with the mill, was so expensive that it became impossible to keep. But over time I was able to get new insurance by going back to work for the mill. So that made a difference. Housing and everything where I work is so expensive that it makes it all that impossible to live in the area rather than commute. It means that even with an 8 hour day, my days are 12 hours long with the commute. So, it makes a difference as well. On a personal note, naturally, spending so much time working it takes a toll on you. Your physical and your family life, so it made a difference there as well. There’s just not much time to do anything and you always feel tired. But other than that, the things I was involved in with the community, naturally, I’m not able to do that anymore, very much. And my church activities, all of my activities as a matter of fact, I’ve had to curtail because of the work and all.

Q: Last time we saw you, you were with Addie in your dining room. What are the biggest differences since the IP plant closed in Natchez?

GR: Well, naturally, not having the opportunity to spend time together, and not get things done, creates issues. And it makes the family come, the family life separates. So it makes it very very difficult to maintain normal lifestyle, with normal things under things conditions. Yes, it’s created a hardship and a burden that was not there before. It is very very difficult. The price of gasoline was, at the time that I took this job ninety miles away has doubled so that means that the expense of driving…I’ve worn out the car. I put 42,000 miles on the car last year, just going back and forth to work. There is no way, I’m going to have to, my wife and I have been talking about it just a little while ago, I’m going to have to move to the area where I work. I am only going to be able to come home when I’m off.

Q: Do you ever think about what would have happened if you guys were able to successfully buy the plant and…do you allow yourself to daydream about that?

GR: All the time. It is a shame. Had we been able to buy the facility, although the downturn in the paper industry has been a crunch in the country. Our lifestyles would have been different. This area would have been booming economically. I looked into a company based in North Carolina and we were building a model based on theirs but eliminated some of the mistakes that they made. We would have been tremendously successful because we would have been able to compete with others in the industry and it would’ve save jobs and it would have grown jobs. This community and Mississippi would’ve been better off had we done that. Yes, we think about that all the time. And the sad thing about it is that the factory is being demolished as we speak. So it is just an absolute waste, what happened there.

Q: Was there anything you learned during the process that you think would have changed the outcome, that you think other people could learn from?

GR: It’s difficult to say because what we did was….we brought in experts. We had people who were at the top of the game in the Employee Stock Ownership Plan. We had everything lined up. I’m not sure we made mistakes. I’m not sure we made mistakes. Because the people we had leading us were absolutely top notch. The mistake if any, may have been by not getting the local people to understand our mission and our purpose. Somehow, if they had thought it through what we were doing, if we had been able to sell them in the beginning and they had been players on the team with us, ok? That could have been our salvation.

Q: This is not to be pessimistic, but you’ve spoken before about customer service jobs taking over industry jobs. What labor will be left? In twenty years is there going to be a working class? Or is it all going to be customer service.

GR: Economics is going to drive that. People are going to drive to that. Just like right now, if you look at what’s happened to industry as corporate giants and the CEOs and the presidents are making huge amounts of money and labor’s being forced out. As labor continues to get smaller and smaller eventually, actually economics are going to drive unions back into existence. Because people are going to want that share of the pie. And it might be 5 years, it might be 10 years, but the organization will come back. We’ve seen that even in the Walmart stores where people are recognizing that there is something better than what Walmart is promising them.

Q: Go back to pre-1930s, do you think there will another movement, like the workers movement that helped create things like the WPA? Do you think there’s going to be another one of those movements? Or is it already happening? Almost like a revolution, in a way.

GR: Absolutely. I didn’t want to use the term revolution. I didn’t want to use it. But eventually, we are going to see people rebel in this country. People are not going to sit down in this country and allow the very very rich to put up their gated communities and enjoy all the luxuries that should be available to average citizens and let other folks work for nothing. And live in an apartment complex. It’s not going to happen that way. There will be a revolt.

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