WISCONSIN RAPIDS, WISCONSIN — The sprawling paper mill situated on the banks of the Wisconsin River that flows through Wisconsin Rapids has long been one of its most defining and important features.
“It is the bloodline, the lifeline of Wisconsin Rapids,” said Scott Krug, a Republican lawmaker who represents the town and surrounding areas in the Wisconsin State Assembly.
“It is the one thing that has survived everything the city has been through and the country has been through. Through world wars, great Depressions – it has been here, and it is the solid,” Krug explained to VOA during a recent interview conducted across the river from the facility.
“It is what we depend on.”
Several generations of Krug’s family worked at the paper mill, from its peak when thousands of workers passed through its doors, to its valleys, including the present, when roughly 900 workers who collect a paycheck from current owner Verso Corporation will be the last.
The mill is scheduled to close in July, in part because the COVID-19 pandemic tanked demand from businesses using the mill’s paper for advertising. Krug is seeking a new owner.
“It hits you that this is the first time that this plant will ever shut down in its 120-year history,” Krug said. “That’s something that impacts me to my core.”
It also impacts workers beyond the walls of the mill, such as Laura Delaney, who manages her family’s timber harvesting operation and trucking company. She oversees a workforce and equipment deployed in the forests surrounding Wisconsin Rapids. About 40% of the wood Delaney’s company processed supplied the mill.
“They were one of the largest suppliers for us to take our hardwood and aspen to,” Delaney told VOA. Now, she’s sitting on tons of timber with no buyer.
“No further deliveries whatsoever. So, the sale that we were cutting on, we had to stop. There’s timber sitting on the landing that can’t go anywhere. We can’t do anything with it. It’s just sitting there,” she said.
Delaney is growing concerned about keeping her employees on the job and making payments due on new equipment.
“Those machines are upwards of $700,000. They don’t pay for themselves if they aren’t working,” she said.
The story of the Wisconsin Rapids paper mill is not a new or unique illustration of the impact of the loss of manufacturing jobs on local economies. But it is the latest in a narrative that has defined states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania as the “Rust Belt” – areas where many middle-class workers have lost quality manufacturing jobs in the past several decades, as plants and mills that made everything from cars to refrigerators have closed.
They are also areas where those out of work or worried about losing their jobs or small businesses say they feel overlooked or forgotten by politicians in Washington.
“This is the average Joe in Wisconsin Rapids,” Krug said. “The blue-collar worker who has put 30 years of his lifeblood into this, and has bought a home and has a mortgage, and maybe has a small business on the side.”
“What we do is very important, but I think it is forgotten a lot,” explained Delaney, who added that some of the paper products produced from the wood she harvests are also found in personal protection equipment (PPE) employed in the fight against COVID-19. “If people stopped and thought about where everything they use comes from, they would be surprised.”
Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are also three states that President Donald Trump narrowly won on his path to the White House in the 2016 general election and are “battleground” states in which both Democrats and Republicans are fighting for votes in the 2020 contest.
In Wisconsin, home to a bulk of the country’s timber and paper industry, many voters supported Trump on campaign promises to return manufacturing jobs to the U.S.
“I feel that he has had to fight an uphill battle the whole time he’s been in there,” Delaney said. “If he was left to do the job that he said he was going to do, he would do it very well.”
Despite several years of a trade war with China and other nations, manufacturing jobs have not rebounded enough to make up for the 5.5 million positions the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports were lost between 2000 and 2017.
“We’re losing jobs because we’re moving towards automation,” said Stephen Deller, a professor and community economic development specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“More and more, manufacturing is using automation technologies to increase productivity, and that’s not a Wisconsin phenomenon, that’s a phenomenon across all of manufacturing around the world," Deller said. “We don’t need the amount of labor to produce the manufactured goods we’re producing. So, if you look at purely employment, yes, manufacturing is taking a bit of a hit.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges to Wisconsin’s economy, and job losses in the state since March have erased any gains in the manufacturing sector Wisconsin experienced since 2011.
In current opinion polling, former Vice President Joe Biden has increased his lead over Trump in Wisconsin.
“It’s not that voters are enthusiastic about Joe Biden, but they have soured on Donald Trump,” said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. “I think the real question is whether people trust that Trump is going to lead them to ultimately a better place when it comes to jobs, or whether this is a sign of his failure in trying to deliver on things he was promising four years ago.”
As he works to find new ownership for the mill, Krug – the first Republican to represent Wisconsin Rapids in the state assembly in 40 years – also faces reelection on the same ticket as Trump.
“The choice for me is still with President Trump. But the choice is a little less solid because of some of the things that were impacted here,” he told VOA. “That’s why we’ve put so much pressure on the administration to try to step in, because it’s time to do some action, to make actions louder than words.”
There is job action, but not in Wisconsin Rapids.
Hours away, a new multibillion-dollar facility owned by Taiwanese electronics manufacturer FoxConn promised 13,000 new jobs for the state.
But by the end of 2019, even before the COVID-19 pandemic set in, the company reported that only about 600 people directly worked at the site.