Editorial: Sudden closure of Turners Falls mill creates huge loss for workers, town

  • Southworth paper manufacturer closed its factory in Turners Falls along the power canal on Aug. 30. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Monday, September 11, 2017

The 60 or so employees of Southworth Co. who worked at the Turners Falls paper mill didn’t deserve to be treated so shabbily.

News that the plant was closing and their jobs ended greeted workers when they reported to work on a Wednesday morning two weeks ago. Executives offered up names of other businesses that might be hiring, but they offered no other employment assistance or apology for the lack of any notice.

Some workers even reported that their regular pay deposits didn’t show up in their bank accounts that week.

It’s wrong to treat so inconsiderately the people whose labor the company relied on with such little compassion and respect. Southworth publicly announced the closure a day after it laid off employees at its locations in Turners Falls, Agawam and Seattle, citing “the corporation’s inability to obtain financing for its current operations from its secured lenders.”

The company’s official statement did give assurances to its customers, also left in the lurch, that current orders would be completed. But what of its workers? No mention of them. And state officials said the company never even contacted them to orchestrate help for the laid-off employees.

Fortunately, Massachusetts has a progressive approach to helping workers blindsided by sudden shutdowns. We hope that the state unemployment benefits and job-seeking assistance offered at the Franklin-Hampshire Career Center at One Arch Place in Greenfield will shield the 60 families from the sudden, life-altering disruption. The Career Center offers free job-hunting advice, workshops and job fairs, among other services.

State Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who represents Montague in the Legislature, has offered the support of his office to marshal state resources to help. But his offer implicitly acknowledges that the Turners Falls paper mill jobs are gone forever.

One bit of encouraging news is that there are apparently several companies in this recovering economy interested in taking on Southworth’s experienced mill workers. About half a dozen manufacturers have reached out to the Career Center about possible jobs for the laid-off workers. We hope that means the Turners Falls mill hands will quickly find better jobs at better pay with those companies.

They leave behind a long heritage of papermaking in Montague. Southworth’s Turners Falls plant, which was the last paper mill in a town that once supported several, traces its history back to 1839. It was the Esleeck Paper Co. from 1900 to 2006, when Southworth bought it. In 2012, Southworth announced that it would sell one of its brands to another paper producer, Neenah Paper Inc., but kept its Turners Falls mill running, although there were hints at the time that would only last a few years.

Meanwhile, the plant’s shutdown leaves broader questions about the town’s manufacturing base. The Southworth real estate next door to the former Strathmore paper mill is assessed at $2,578,300, but that value only drops if the building remains empty. You don’t have to look far to see the danger to the town.

The once-sprawling Strathmore has been closed for decades, and now, partially destroyed by decay and arson, is an expensive liability for the town, which owns it. We now have two shuttered paper mills on the island between the Power Canal and the Connecticut River, despite the perpetual hope a productive use can be found for the buildings or land.

Town leaders, with the help of state officials, should quickly begin exploring how they might encourage reuse of the Southworth property before it too suffers the fate of the Strathmore. We hope that creative minds can find ways to resurrect 20th century mills for use in a 21st century economy.