/ Opinions / As the knife turns … in our backs

As the knife turns … in our backs

July 17, 2020

All during the pandemic, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers liked to talk about how, with his Badger Bounce Back plan, he would, every day or so, announce a new “turn of the dial,” which would slowly re-open the state, get workers back to work, and families back on their feet.

As it happened, thanks to the state Supreme Court, we never had to suffer through Evers’s turns of the dial, which he really didn’t plan on turning very much, owing both to his hatred of the private sector and to his thirst for power.

Dials aren’t the governor’s thing. Knives are, especially when it comes to northern Wisconsin, and these days the state is watching as the governor once again slowly twists the economic knife into the backs of forest products workers.

In early June, Verso stunned the state with its announcement that, by the end of July, it would close its Wisconsin Rapids and Duluth paper mills. In Rapids alone, 900 jobs are to be lost, and that’s not just 900 families but countless more when the economic ripple effect sweeps over the city.

Since early June, those with their lives on the line have waited for some word that the governor would propose state action to at least buy the mill and these workers some time — perhaps incentives for Verso or a potential buyer to keep the mill operating, or a loan to retool the factory, or at least direct financial assistance if the mill could not be saved.

Those hopes, despite legions of local officials and citizens trying to work out options, have been met with silence by the governor. As the end of July nears, we have heard not a peep from Evers. He has rendered no moral support, proposed no action, demonstrated no evidence of leadership.

The governor’s office did not return messages from this newspaper asking what his plan is and his position on state incentives. He did have a minion, the WEDC’s Missy Hughes, trot out vague pufferies about all the good things the administration is doing, you know, ‘exploring options” and “connecting the dots.” This administration loves catch phrases like “connecting the dots,” “an all-hands approach,” “turning the dial,” and more, which are all grand ways of saying they are busy doing nothing.

But when it came to the governor’s position on state incentives, or any specific proposal for that matter, we were met with silence. With the governor, we were met with complete silence.

Silence everywhere from this administration. It is the song the governor sings when people are in trouble. It is the song of a man who shows nothing but contempt for workers. It is the song of a man holding a large economic knife, and twisting it into those who knock on his door for help.

Make no mistake, as we report today, the economic pain will extend far beyond Wisconsin Rapids and Duluth, Minnesota. It will cascade across Wisconsin, especially in our own region, and bring job losses and more stagnation.

As we report, in Oneida County alone, the forest products industry directly employed 621 people as of 2017, or more than 2 percent of the county’s employment. Including indirect employment, the industry accounts for more than 7 percent of the county’s jobs, and the pulp and paper industry accounts for more than 6 percent.

When a mill that takes a quarter of the market for pulpwood goes out of business, not just mill workers but logging contractors and truckers and suppliers across the region are put in jeopardy. And that puts the entire economy in jeopardy.

Perhaps we should not be surprised, given the governor’s track record.

Things were different when Scott Walker was governor. When a similar situation occurred, Scott Walker showed leadership. Walker and the Legislature went to work immediately after Kimberly Clark announced plans to close its Cold Springs plant, eventually brokering a deal that provided the company with $28 million in incentives to keep the plant open.

The company did close another one as planned, but saving Cold Springs spared 388 jobs, as well as a $30 million annual payroll, and the company pledged to invest $200 million in the facility. 

Things have only gotten better since then. As of late 2019 and prior to the pandemic, as reported by the Appleton Post Crescent, the Cold Spring facility was operating at full capacity, employed 430 people, up from the days when it was slated to close, and was operating 24 hours a day with two 12-hour shifts.

What’s more, the company invested $115 million to build a new warehouse and add four production lines to its existing 12 lines, the Post-Crescent reported.

Of course, when the deal was being negotiated, Tony Evers didn’t say much. He grumbled about the governor and the GOP “playing politics” with Kimberly Clark, and he huffed and puffed about new legislation that stripped him of the same power Walker had to negotiate such a deal. Such deals must be approved by the Legislature now.

But all in all, Evers was never effusive about saving jobs at Kimberly Clark. He talked in general terms about an industry-wide or macro approach to the forest products industry and, after his election, he said he did not like Band-Aid deals like Kimberly Clark, you know, the type of government action that saves jobs and families and communities, rather than lathering the pockets of unions and the special interests of identity politics.

Given the economic importance of the Verso mills and of the forests products industry in Wisconsin, we would have thought — and we hoped — the governor would been at the forefront of efforts to save and turn around this situation. 

He has not been. It’s part of a pattern of disdain —disdain for the private sector, disdain for the forest products industry and its sustainable and reasonable rather the radical approach to forest management, disdain for any place in Wisconsin that is not named Madison or Milwaukee.

Perhaps, in the end, we shall be proven wrong, and it will turn out that Gov. Evers was working behind the scenes all along. Maybe those options that Hughes and the WEDC are exploring will bear specific fruit. We hope that will be the case, though, if it is, that will raise questions about transparency and why any solution had to be brokered in secret.

Usually, though, the most successful economic approach is to use the bully pulpit of the office, and aggressively pursue strategies that publicly engage stakeholders and citizens. Evers is constantly preaching for Wisconsinites to work together for a better tomorrow. 

He should practice what he preaches.

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