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Michael Hillard on Maine’s Paper Industry

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We asked author Michael Hillard three questions about his book, Shredding Paper: The Rise and Fall of Maine’s Mighty Paper Industry, and his research on labor relations and worker experiences in Maine’s paper industry.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

Too many to choose from!

  • Learning that Maine was the top paper producing state for decades (roughly 1920s-1960), and was home to the top high-end publication papers—color magazines, high-end book presses, plus myriad other paper products.[1] In its heyday, Maine was the Detroit of the US paper industry, except no one knows this.
  • Special collaborative skills required to make paper––“287 factors” that go into making a good run of paper––the skill of first hands-on down to fifth or sixth hands, challenges in making pulp, furnish, and the speed and settings of huge paper machines, requiring constant testing, and problem-solving included R&D scientists/engineers, sales staff, production managers, first hands, and “test girls.” Every shift was like the proverbial baking a touch soufflé. Ruining one shift’s worth of paper on one machine could cost a company as much as $1 million.
  • Hidden history of compromise and struggle—ranging from Fraser Strike where workers put whole families on train tracks to block a massive shipment of paper and rioted, to the deep bond of founding families and workforces via paternalism (see next bullet). Learning that the industry’s bond with its workers was progressively damaged when ownership was no longer “local” and back by “patient investors.” This produced a breakdown of a collaborative relationship beginning in the 1960s that spurred a dramatic and, for the most part, untold story of often dramatic labor rebellion.
  • Memory piece—how late twentieth/early twenty-first-century labor activism framed by “filiopietism” of communities who worshipped the memory of mill’s “founding fathers.” S.D. Warren “took care of everybody” for generations, becoming “Mother Warren,” while Hugh Chisholm (founder of IP and Oxford) was compared (favorably) to Christopher Columbus and Thomas Edison in discovering the best river site for paper production in the Maine wilderness in the 1880s.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

The US paper industry has few works on the industry’s labor and capitalist history.  As the “Detroit of the paper industry,” Maine had over two dozen significant mills and a dozen very large mills during its heyday (up to the beginning of the 1990s), almost all built in what was Maine’s deep wilderness around 1900; each mill has its own history of mastery of national markets, forging paternalistic relations between mill managers and workforce, and the story of growing worker rebellion starting in the 1960s as paternalistic bonds frayed. Also part of the story is the branch of the industry that was a massive workforce of woodcutters/loggers, mostly organized as contractors rather than employees. While I focus intently on several mills and Maine loggers in the mid to late twentieth century, a book could be written about the history of each mill, with more to be said about woodcutters. I wish I had started this research when I was younger, so that I could pursue more books on specific mills, and will seek to mentor young scholars to that end.

3. How do you wish you could change the field of Labor Studies?

A deeper integration of labor history and history of capitalism/political economy.  I hope my study has this impact:

(1) discovering how some of what was “mass production” during the era of the second industrial revolution (as told by Piore and Sabel’s Second Industrial Divide, and Alfred Chandler’s The Visible Hand) was not based on a semi–skilled, Fordist model, but rather flexible specialization that came into vogue in the late twentieth century;

(2) the IR field sees greater value in integrating “top-down” political economy history and “bottom-up” labor history as a method to study labor relations as an evolving, historically–driven process, especially due to the potency of community memory;

(3) a deeper recognition of how the rise of the “shareholder value movement” aka as “financialization” (I use the expression “the Wall Street takeover of US manufacturing companies”) that began in the mid–1980s US checkmated “high road” work restructuring at a time when US manufacturing firms were on the ropes, and how financially oriented executives like the infamous “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap destroyed organizational capabilities built up over a century in just a few years of poor management.

[1] The nation’s most widely read glossy magazines (Vogue, Life, National Geographic), gorgeous corporate annual reports, S&H Green Stamps, Chinette fine paper plates, IBM card stock, and Sears Catalogs, to name a few.

Read more about this book.

Michael G. Hillard is Professor of Economics at the University of South Maine.

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