Despite looming layoffs, the local head of the union representing papermakers in Camas is hopeful they will land on their feet.
The state Employment Security Department announced Wednesday that the mill will officially begin laying off employees May 1. Mill owner Georgia-Pacific, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, first announced the layoffs in November but hadn’t said when they would happen.
The Atlanta, Ga.-based company plans to shut down its communications paper division — paper for printers, copiers and the like — for which demand has reportedly dropped. The mill’s paper towel manufacturing will continue.
Layoffs will be staggered until equipment is fully removed, said spokeswoman Kristi Ward. Still, 280 to 300 jobs are expected to be lost in the end, she said.
“We have been working jointly with the union as we work through contractual issues, severance benefits and assisting impacted employees,” she said in an email.
Camas mill timeline
• 1883: Henry Pittock’s LaCamas Colony Co. bought 2,600 acres to build a paper mill to supply newsprint for The Oregonian.
• 1884: The Columbia River Paper Company was formed.
• 1885: The mill began producing wood pulp.
• 1905: Columbia River Paper merged with Crown Paper Co. of Oregon City, Ore., to form the Crown Columbia Paper Co.
• 1911: The mill’s 450 employees earned $300,000 in wages.
• 1913: The mill converted from steam to electric power.
• 1914: Crown Columbia merged with Willamette Paper to form Crown Willamette Paper Co.
• 1928: Crown Willamette merged with Zellerbach Paper to form Crown Zellerbach Corp., the largest paper company on the West Coast.
• 1930: The mill stopped making newsprint and began producing specialty paper; the mill began producing Zee bath tissue.
• 1941: To support the war effort, machine shops were converted to manufacture shipyard parts.
• 1950: Facial folded napkins were made for the first time.
• 1971: Crown Zellerbach was the county’s biggest manufacturing employer with 2,643 workers.
• 1984: A three-year, $425 million mill modernization included a new machine to make communication papers for copiers and printing.
• 1986: Crown Zellerbach’s mills were sold to James River Corp.
• 1993: The mill installed and started up a facility dedicated to communication papers.
• 1995: After 10 years of job attrition, the mill employed about 1,600.
• 1997: James River Corp. merged with Fort Howard Corp. to form Fort James Corp.
• 2000: Current mill owner Georgia-Pacific acquired Fort James.
• 2005: Georgia-Pacific became a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries.
• 2017: The Georgia-Pacific mill had Clark County’s biggest property tax bill, $1.77 million.
• 2018: The mill’s communications paper machine, fine paper converting assets, pulping operations and related equipment slated to shut down.
“We know this is a difficult time for employees, and we commend them for their continued professionalism,” she added. “Employees continue to show great pride in running the impacted assets in a safe reliable manner, just as they always have.”
While workers are saddened by the mill closure, union representatives say workers are staying professional.
“The actual equipment they’re getting rid of has been running hard and heavy, and people are taking a lot of pride in that,” said Brian Anderson, president of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers Local 5. “It’s kind of sad we ran through the recession but can’t run through this. (But) we’re committed to shutting her down like they want to do.”
Layoffs impact more than half of today’s millworkers. A little more than 400 people still work there, in an industry paying $77,588 annually on average in Clark County, according to the state Employment Security Department. Most millworkers are in their late 40s, Anderson said.
The union is still trying to triage the layoffs, deciding who can stay and who leaves. Severance packages have already been negotiated. Some workers have simply quit.
Anderson hoped other companies will see millworkers as hard-working and intelligent. Businesses have reached out via WorkSource, an employment organization working with Georgia-Pacific to help workers find other jobs or training.
“It’s hard to get someone to work Christmases and holidays that have been doing it successfully for as many years as we have here,” he said. “There’s been a lot of response from other locations and industries to get contacts.”
Prospects in decline
The layoffs will be just the latest hollowing out of a once dominant industry. A century-old mill closed in West Linn, Ore., in October, following a contemporary mill in Oregon City, Ore., that shuttered in 2011. Twelve mills have closed in Oregon and Washington since 2000, according to the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association.
Mills are closing for all sorts of reasons, said Chris McCabe, executive director of the trade association. Internet communication has usurped the need for communications paper and newsprint, for example. Foreign competition has grown, and state regulations have not helped Pacific Northwest mills compete, he said.
“You look at things in Oregon, cap and trade is being considered again in Salem. In Olympia, where our office is, carbon tax is being pushed pretty hard,” McCabe said.
Demand for communications paper dropped 32 percent from 2008 to 2017, according to the American Forest and Paper Association, based in Washington D.C.
Clark County’s own paper mills have been whittled. Jobs peaked in 1970 with 3,700 jobs, but now stand at about 1,000. Layoffs sprang at the Camas mill periodically, and the Boise Cascade paper mill in downtown Vancouver shut down in 2006.
Those fortunes run counter to many local industries. Unemployment in the Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area is 3.8 percent.
“It’s never a good time to lose jobs, especially high-wage jobs. Hopefully, because it’s a fairly tight labor market, local manufacturers will be able to absorb them,” said regional economist Scott Bailey.
“We’ll see how that goes.”
Troy Brynelson: 360-735-4547; firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/TroyWB