The auto industry gets a federal bailout to stave off closing; paper mills suffer layoffs, shutdowns and an uncertain future.

The stimulus package has passed Congress and hundreds of billions of dollars to help get our economy going and assist states with balancing budgets should be flowing soon.

Those billions come on the heels of packages of billions to bail out several industries, from banking to the American auto industry. This shows no consistent policy around support of industry and employee sacrifice in the face of budget cuts or layoffs, except maybe this: Those who fall fastest get parachutes, while those in decline are allowed to erode in silence.

Automakers and papermakers, in other words.

While foreign carmakers have invested in American plants over the past 10 or more years, the “Big 3” ran production lines full throttle to pump out gas-guzzling SUVs, which never seemed part of a long view for sustainability, either for their business or the environment.

Compound that practice over a long period and you are left with are major corporations on the brink of bankruptcy. And despite the harsh realities of corporate restructuring and layoffs that inevitably come with it, many businesses also find healthy ledgers as an outcome.

Or they evaporate from the landscape.

The Big 3 are unique among industries, though. Maybe it’s the strength of its unions or America’s love affair with cars. Or maybe their executives played a game of Russian roulette and timed their plea for billions in government money perfectly after the banking debacle.

Now with employee pensions, health care and likely costs of unemployment coming to the table, the federal government is sitting in the room with its checkbook ready to support not only the corporations, but the communities in which those soon-to-be-lost jobs reside.

So what of the papermakers? Their story starts similarly. Its model for manufacturing was to run the machines as fast and hard as you could, fill up the warehouse, then sell. Market conditions do change, and demand and prices for once-popular mainstream products declines. This is a bad recipe, resulting in financial instability of the industry and need for restructuring.

This didn’t happen quickly, however. Grab any newspaper in the past 20 years in towns such as Baileyville, Millinocket, Rumford, Jay, or any other pulp and paper community, and the story is there in black and white.

Paper machines are shut down, either temporarily or permanently. With those shutdowns, the paper that once left the warehouse is replaced by departing employees.

Large numbers of vacant storefronts, decreased property values and significant population losses are some of the impacts felt by those communities hosting those mammoth plants.

As recently as this week, Fraser Papers announced it would furlough up to 600 employees at its mill in Madawaska and well over 100 at the plant it operates in East Millinocket.

The public policy response for the pulp and paper companies and the communities in which they reside has not included billions in federal bailout money. Although there are programs to assist with employee retraining, those millions of dollars pale against the resources committed to finding a sustainable future for the prime industry of the Midwest.

This is no attempt to advocate for a pulp and paper bailout – that ship has sailed – although innovation and diversification are still strong possibilities. And it is not necessarily a call for no government involvement in the restructuring of the Big 3 automakers.

I’m merely asking a question.

Should taxpayers in the Northeast be forced to support the continued industry of the Midwest, with its good-paying jobs and economic ripple effect, while industry here has died a slow death, crippling the most rural parts of our region?

Jonathan LaBonte of New Auburn is a columnist for the Sun Journal and an Androscoggin County Commissioner. E-mail: [email protected]


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