Jerry and Kraig Nichols still remember when the 1984 start-up of the “Roaring 20” machine marked a new beginning for the Camas paper mill.
“It was all gloom and doom before that,” Kraig said of the mill during the late ’70s, when the papermaking industry was in a state of transition and worker strikes were commonplace.
When machine No. 20, the “Roaring 20,” came online in the mid-1980s, mill workers like Jerry, a shift supervisor, and his son, Kraig — both part of the “Roaring 20” start-up crew — knew better days were ahead.
“The mood was really good,” Jerry said.
Kraig was only 28 years old when the machine started up, but he still remembers his coworkers’ excitement.
“It saved the mill,” Kraig said of the office paper machine. “The industry wasn’t doing so great … but people felt like this was going to revitalize the mill.”
The machine has been a workhorse ever since, producing thousands of feet of office paper per minute for the past 34 years, and providing stable, family-wage jobs for hundreds of mill workers.
Jerry, 86, remembers what he used to tell his four children when they complained about the pulp mill smell.
“I told them, ‘That’s the smell of prosperity,'” Jerry said.
In the 1980s, that certainly was true. The mill employed about 2,500 workers then, offered higher-than-average wages with retirement plans and good benefits, and made up about 60 percent of Camas’ tax base. As Camas diversified and the mill downsized, those numbers shifted. Today, the mill accounts for about 5 percent of the city’s tax revenues and employs a little more than 400 workers.
Next week marks the end of an era for many longtime Camas-Washougal families, who can point to countless relatives who devoted their best years to the mill.
Tuesday, May 1, a day known throughout the world as International Workers’ Day, is the date Georgia-Pacific chose as the final day for machine No. 20, as well as the 135-year-old mill’s pulp operations.
The first day in May also marks the beginning of what Georgia-Pacific spokeswoman Kristi Ward calls “a staggered layoff,” affecting 280 to 300 mill workers.
Ward said Tuesday, May 1, was the planned date for shutting down the No. 20 machine, as well as the pulp assets at the mill.
“But, based on supply availability, it could be sooner than that,” Ward said Tuesday. “That doesn’t mean 280 to 300 employees will walk out that day. (The layoffs) will be a staggered process as the equipment shuts down.”
Ward said some of the affected employees have already left to take other jobs, but that many have stayed to help shutdown the “Roaring 20” and the pulp operations, despite knowing last November that their jobs were ending.
“We’ve appreciated the professionalism of the Camas team,” Ward said. “It’s a sad and difficult time for employees and they should be commended for remaining committed to operating the mill throughout this entire process.”
Kraig Nichols is one of the employees who decided to stay until the bitter end. Kraig, 62, had already planned to retire from the mill, so he isn’t as affected as some of the younger people he works with on machine No. 20.
Still, it’s hard to see “Roaring 20” go away, he said.
“I think everybody on the machine feels like it’s a shame to see it shut down,” Kraig said. “It’s a really good running machine and we’ve worked all the bugs out through the years.”
Unlike many similar machines in the company, Kraig said the “Roaring 20” can run for a month without a break and regularly produces more office paper — about 700 tons every day — than other machines.
“It’s got a lot of good years left in it,” Kraig said of the machine that has been his responsibility for the past 36 years. “The company probably wishes it was going to a different location.”
Kraig’s dad, Jerry, who retired in 1988 after 38 years at the mill, including four years when he served with the United States Navy and went to war in Korea, said he wasn’t as shocked to hear that the company was shutting down machine 20 and the pulp operations.
“That’s standard Koch,” Jerry said, referring to Koch Industries, which bought Georgia-Pacific Corp. for $21 billion in 2005, and has since shuttered several Georgia-Pacific paper mills, including the Bellingham, Washington tissue paper mill just two years after the 2005 acquisition.
Jerry and Kraig still keep in touch with many of the original “Roaring 20” start-up crew. Of the nearly 50 mill workers who helped bring the machine online in 1984, only six, including Kraig, remain.
“I’m retiring. One will stay on to work on the other machine,” Kraig said of the remaining “originals” on the No. 20 machine. “The others are in their 50s, not ready to retire, so they’re looking for other jobs.”
Bill Spring, vice president of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers (AWPPW), worked at the Camas mill for 29 years, and has been involved in helping the soon-to-be laid-off mill workers figure out their next steps.
WorkSource, a division of the state’s unemployment department, hosted a job fair at the Camas millworkers’ union hall in March, and brought nearly 30 employers looking for skilled workers.
“There are some jobs out there — skilled labor is in high demand,” Spring said. “But many folks will have to relocate or move.”
Finding a job that pays comparable wages may be tough, especially for longtime mill workers who are likely earning between $65,000 and $90,000 a year, Spring said.
“A lot of folks who live in Camas and Washougal right now … are going to have to look for work in other places,” Spring said.
He added that the union is still hoping to secure trade adjustment assistance (TAA) for mill workers set to lose their jobs in May.
Part of the federal TAA program established under the Trade Act of 1974, the benefits provide retraining assistance to workers who have lost their jobs as a result of foreign imports.
“A good portion of these (workers) are not ready to retire yet,” Spring said. “The majority of them are still trying to figure out what they’re going to do, how they’re going to replace that family-wage job.”
Ward, with Georgia-Pacific, said the worker layoffs are scheduled to begin May 1 and run through the month of May. Around 150 employees will remain to run the mill’s last machine, which produces tissue products.
Crews will begin to deconstruct the pulp assets and No. 20 machine in mid-2019, Ward said. Company officials expect it will take two to three years to complete the demolition.