The plight of workers at Camas’ Georgia-Pacific paper mill provides a case study for the economics of heavy industry. It also brings up questions about corporate citizenship and the role of businesses in the communities they inhabit.
Last year, officials at Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific — a subsidiary of Kansas-based Koch Industries — announced they would close their communications paper division due to dropping demand for printer and copier paper. Layoffs impacted about 300 employees — roughly half the mill’s workforce.
For Camas, the move has been a blow to the region’s very identity, which is so intertwined with the mill that the high school’s athletic teams are known as the Papermakers. A mill has sat at the site along the Columbia River since 1884, and as of 1971 it employed more than 2,500 workers. A changing marketplace has slowly diminished that workforce, but the mill has remained a landmark. In 2017, its property tax bill of $1.77 million was the highest in the county.
That provides a snapshot of Clark County history, but probably does not mean much to displaced workers. When jobs are eliminated, it doesn’t matter how long they had been there; it just means that people are out of work.
All of which leads us to take note of an article last week in The Columbian. The U.S. Department of Labor recently ruled that workers laid off from the Georgia-Pacific mill are eligible to apply for a federal program known as Trade Adjustment Assistance. Reversing a previous ruling, the labor department decided that Camas workers may seek retraining for new fields, employment-management services, relocation allowances and income support.
Trade Adjustment Assistance is designed for workers laid off in part because of foreign competition. It was authorized under the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which opened markets to foreign manufacturers. President Kennedy said in support of the assistance program: “When considerations of national policy make it desirable to avoid higher tariffs, those injured by that competition should not be required to bear the full brunt of the impact. Rather, the burden of economic adjustment should be borne in part by the federal government.”
In 2017, the training fund portion of the program provided $391 million to workers throughout the country, including $14 million in Washington.
Retraining displaced workers is a more sensible approach than propping up dying industries or suggesting those industries are being scuttled by oppressive regulations, but that training must be effective. A 2012 report funded by the Department of Labor found that job training delayed an employee’s re-entry into the job market and provided only marginal long-term benefits.
The question then becomes how the government can more effectively assist displaced workers and how much of the burden should fall to taxpayers. The corollary surrounds the obligation of a company to leave a community in better shape than it found it. According to Forbes, Koch Industries’ vast holdings generated $110 billion in revenue in 2017, making it seem incongruous that the public should pay to retrain workers who have been laid off so the company can increase its profits.
In addition, as the company scales back operations in Camas, there are concerns about the impact of a mill that carries inherent environmental risks.
We hope that workers who lost their jobs in Camas find gainful employment and remain in the community. But we also hope that big business is held accountable as a corporate citizen.