Chuck Smith spent nearly three decades working at the Androscoggin Mill before he was laid off in 2017. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

REGION — Charles Smith who goes by Chuck, broke picket lines in the summer of 1987 to work as a maintenance mechanic at the Androscoggin Mill, joining the 1,050 new hires for the replacement workforce.

“It was worse going through when the women were all picketing because they were very, very vocal and very nasty,” Smith said. “You can get called a name by a guy and at the same time when a woman says the same thing to ya, it’s completely different.” 

The mill lost 1,200 workers during the nation-wide strike against International Paper (IP) when the company reduced benefits, increased monthly insurance payments and abolished double-time pay for work on Sundays and holidays.

By Oct. of 1988 the 16-month strike came to an end with workers gaining little to no traction with their demands, and Smith found himself working alongside many of the same people who had harassed him as he went into work every day.

“Most of them didn’t hold any hard feelings,” he said.

In 1987, Smith was still financially recovering from his layoff in 1985 when he worked as an oil field engineer based out of Louisiana and Texas.

“In 1985 the oil field went to pieces and I got laid off down there, down in Louisiana,” he said.

During Smith’s eight-year stretch in the fossil fuel industry, he worked two months on and had one month off so he and his wife decided to set up their home base in Phillips, Maine, to be closer to family. This left Smith with few options when he was laid off.

He went to work at Maine Wood Works, but this resulted in a pay cut and Smith looked to the paper industry to secure a position that had a comparable salary to oil field work.

Smith would work at the Androscoggin Mill for 29.5 years mostly on backshift working several overnight, consecutive 12-hour days in exchange for longer weekends.

“The kids would get home from school at 3:30 and 5 or 5:30, I’m headed to work…sometimes it was hard because if I worked days, I wouldn’t get home until — I got out at 6:30 — it would be 7 or 7:30 before I got home and then they’d start planning to go to bed, but we made up for it on the weekends, when we could,” he said.

Smith preferred backshift since less managers worked the odd hours and he was responsible for the maintenance of all five paper machines whereas day shift planted workers in one spot at the mill.

Smith worked his way up to shift leader and fire captain. He sported an International Paper windbreaker with “Ten Year Safety Achievement Award” and the name “Chuck” stitched across the chest. 

He saw two fires during his time at the mill that still appear vividly in his memory and although Smith was no longer at the mill during the April 15, 2020 pulp digester explosion, he recalled that day with fear and pain.

“I immediately thought, ‘how many people got killed?’ And then I found out they didn’t even need a band-aid, nobody got hurt,” Smith said, his voice cracking.

He had tried to contact friends who still worked in the mill, but no one picked up. Smith anxiously waited for the news to report no injuries or fatalities as he envisioned the exact location of the explosion.

“I’ve been in those areas so…” Smith trailed off holding back tears.

Apart from the occasional fire or explosion threat, the mill also presented harsh working conditions from unbearable heat to harsh chemicals and materials.

“I really didn’t like recaust because in the beginning when we got there, it was just white powder everywhere and that was lime and you’d get it on you and it would burn you so you had to wear a paper suit down there most of the time,” Smith said. “Towards the end of it, they had cleaned it up a lot better and there was even better working conditions down there, but that was my least favorite, recaust.”

Lime is commonly used in the recausting process to help with filtering, neutralizing and removing color from pulp waste that is being salvaged to make more paper. 

Despite some of the harsh conditions, Smith said that overall he enjoyed his work and troubleshooting broken machines. While the dirtiest parts of the mill such as the recaust section presented his least favorite jobs, Smith found enjoyment in the variety of his work.

Just shy of 30 years at the mill, Smith was informed that he would be one of many laid off in January of 2017.

“It is what it is,” he shrugged. “It gave me a chance to spend time with my family some, and my wife was sick. She had severe COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).”

With ironic amusement, Smith said that on what would have been his 30th anniversary at the mill, he received severance pay.

“It was a good chunk of money and it helped me get through, but it wasn’t enough to vet me to 65,” he said.

Smith was 62 when he was laid off and needed a plan to get through the next few years until he could access his retirement funds. Since the local paper industry’s decline was blamed on foreign competition, Smith was able to take advantage of the Trade Act. The federal program allowed Smith to draw from unemployment while attending a two-year program at a community college with all expenses covered.

“I needed to do something. We were making out alright on unemployment,” he said. “We didn’t eat out as much or stuff like that. There was no way to make the money that I was making at the mill, but hey, we lived alright. 

With his wife’s encouragement, Smith joined two of his coworkers and enrolled at Central Maine Community College in the electromechanical technology program.

“We formed a group, there was the three of us and this girl named Abby and I think she was right out of high school…we all sat at the front row,” he laughed fondly.

While the academic aspect posed a challenge for Smith who hadn’t been in a college setting for over 40 years, the social aspect was a much-needed distraction. Within two months of his first semester, Smith’s wife passed away.

While Smith finished his program with his peers, he decided not to pursue a job as an electrician.

“I decided not to because the whole reason I had gone and done this was gone. My wife passed away,” he said with his voicing cracking. “I couldn’t have done it without her.” 

Now that Smith is officially retired, he puts his new electrician skills to use by fixing his own mistakes on the home that he built and wired himself 20 years ago.

“I can tell I did it wrong,” he said chuckling.

When Smith is not working on home improvements, he’s daydreaming with his fiancée about places to travel to once the pandemic eases.

Smith said that he doesn’t harbor any ill-feelings towards the mill, but he certainly understands the anxiety that workers face in the declining industry.

“I still have friends that are working there and they don’t know day to day how much longer it’s going to be,” he said. “And that’s worrisome because they’re getting up to retirement age, just another year or two.” 

Smith’s advice for those facing an impending layoff:  acceptance and move on.

“Don’t hold any hard feelings. Get on board with something and make your life the way you want it to be. It was a good ride while it was going, but it’s pretty much over.”

 

 

 

 

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