Chris Soper performs “Small Town America”
Chris Soper performs “Small Town America”
Last week, when the Verso Paper Corporation announced the sale of its 85-year-old paper mill in Bucksport to a scrap metal recycler, it came like a punch in the gut to the mill's 570 workers. Although they had known for two months that the mill would be shuttering at the end of December, many of the workers thought that they would have a few days to say their goodbyes. But at the beginning of the week, the company made a few phone calls and sent out emails letting most of them know that they were no longer needed. As the workers clocked out for their final shifts on Wednesday, a crowd of well wishers gathered outside the plant to thank them for their hard work in an emotional farewell to an industry that has long been a lifeblood to the little coastal town.

While no official announcement has been made, with the sale of the property to Minnesota-based American Iron and Metal Company (AIM), it appears the mill is destined for the scrap heap.

It's been no secret that the paper industry has been ailing for a long time, with the recession and decrease in demand for paper due to the rise of online news and decline of print media. In its annual report, Verso described itself as "highly leveraged" and reported a $43 million loss in its second quarter. The credit agency Moody's predicted another 6-percent drop in the coated-paper market in the next year. In June, Moody's downgraded Verso's bond rating and described it to be "of poor standing" and a "very high credit risk." When Verso announced its closure in October, Ed Sustar, the VP of Moody's Canada, told the Portland Press Herald that the closure would lead to a positive credit upgrade and would help Verso's remaining mills, including the Androscoggin Mill in Jay, stay profitable.

However, unions representing the millworkers argue that Verso has exaggerated the unprofitability of the mill and that its closure is more about diminishing competition and gaining a larger share of the coated-paper market. At the beginning of the year, Verso announced its $1.4 billion acquisition of the NewPage paper mill in Rumford, which also produces coated paper. With the NewPage merger, Verso would become the dominant supplier of coated paper in North America, with about 50 percent of the market share. The U.S. Department

of Justice is currently reviewing the merger as unions at the mill accuse the company of violating anti-monopoly provisions in the Clayton Antitrust Act.

On Monday, Local Lodge 1821 of the International Association of Machinists filed a complaint against the company in U.S. District Court in Bangor seeking an injunction to terminate the sale and require Verso to publicize the sale of the mill at a reasonable price. Verso is reportedly selling the mill for $58 million, far below the mill's assessed value of $360 million by the Town of Bucksport. Verso estimates that the closure of the mill alone will cost between $35 and $45 million. In court filings, the union alleges that Verso had no intention of selling the Bucksport mill to its competitors, in order to ensure they would have increased market share. IAM Local 1821 also alleges that Verso aimed to transfer debt from its mill in Jay to Bucksport's books as part of a debt restructuring plan to facilitate DOJ approval of the NewPage acquisition.

A spokesman for Verso did not return calls for comment by press time.

With the Bucksport plant's coated-paper production capacity at 350,000 metric tons, the closure will effectively decrease the company's production capacity by 28 percent, or 10 percent for the entire North American coated-paper market. With the acquisition, Verso along with South Africa-based Sappi Ltd., would control 80 percent of the coated-paper market in North America.

Meanwhile, Verso is ignoring a state law that requires large companies to pay earned time and severance packages within one regular pay period after the employee's last day of work. For workers, those wages help to hold them over to their next job, but the company has maintained that it has 90 days after the workers' last day of work. In a rare show of bipartisanship, Republican and Democratic leaders in the state Legislature along with the LePage administration have called on Verso to honor its commitments and pay the workers by January 8.

And for the workers, it's been a matter of fairness. According to filings with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, Verso CEO David J. Paterson's total compensation package is over $1.4 million, including his salary, stocks, benefits and a year-end bonus of $527,875. This year the company also reserved a maximum of $8.6 million for executive performance bonuses known as the "Verso Incentive Plan," or "VIP." And while the workers are fighting to receive their severance pay in a timely manner as they figure out their next step, Verso's top five executives will enjoy "golden parachutes" worth an average of $2 million each if they resign or have their employment terminated.
At the same time, Maine taxpayers have generously contributed to Verso's operations with numerous tax breaks and grants over the years. According to Maine Revenue Services, Verso is the top recipient of tax rebates through the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement (BETR) program, which was meant to encourage new capital investment in the state. In addition to receiving nearly $4 million per year through BETR, Verso also receives a $10 million tax increment financing (TIF) deal from the town of Bucksport and was awarded a nearly $10 million Department of Energy grant in 2010.

A Lobsterman's Ode to the Bucksport Millworkers

For Chris Soper, a 35-year-old lobsterman from Bucksport, the news of the closure was a very personal blow - his great grandfather, both grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and nearly all his friends had spent their lives working at the mill. Very early in the morning last Wednesday, December 10, he sat down in his basement and recorded "Small Town America," a bitter critique of corporate greed and ode to his friends and family who he felt were "thrown to the side like a leftover meatloaf." The following day, his song had gone viral on the Internet with over 34,000 views.

Small Town America

I grew up way too fast on this old riverbed
Hear the old whistle blowing,
You knew it was time for bed
Generations before me have walked that line
But that was just a memory, just a piece of time
Small town America, where'd ya go?
So much money with nothing left to show
Just like a candle that's burned to the floor
Small town America ... no more
We've got our freedoms, but can't speak our minds
In a world of deceit, honesty is so hard to find
Just like this mill town, everything will sell
Rich keep getting richer on their way to hell
Small town America where did ya go?
So much money with nothing to show
Just like a candle that's burned to the floor
Small town America . . . no more
Rip out your heart, they'll take your soul
Get what they want and they'll take some more
You're not a person, you're not supposed to feel
You're just a number on this corporate wheel
Small town America where did ya go?
So much money with nothing to show
Just like a candle that's burned to the floor
Small town America . . . no more

Soper said during a phone interview from a reception in Bucksport for the mill workers that he had played in bands before, but it had been several years since he had performed.

He said he didn't normally post his songs because he felt self-conscious about them, but "Small Town America" came to him in about 15 minutes as a way to channel the anger and frustration he felt with the company and the politicians who just two months ago were all over Bucksport shaking hands before the election.

"People are tired of big industry taking over and the little man getting thrown to the side," said Soper. "We're struggling through life every day while they're getting richer and taking their vacations. Our feelings and our way of life don't matter as long as they make the dollar bill. There's no humanity, no compassion in big business anymore."

Meanwhile, as millworkers and their families across the midcoast face a hard Christmas season, Soper says he just hopes they can find some inspiration in his song.

"I hope that people open their eyes and realize that united we stand and divided we fall," said Soper. "Right now we're divided because it's big business versus everybody else. At some point everybody else is going to have to take over because there's power in numbers. And we are the numbers."