Wisconsin Welcomes You” is the visitor friendly message on the highway signs along our borders. Five years ago an additional notice was suspended underneath: “Open for Business.” Our state (unlike before, presumably) had now instantly transformed into a place for limitless corporate opportunity-and profit! A plethora of jobs awaited just beyond the horizon, and an era of stagnation, never quite documented but loudly proclaimed, was finally over.
One business that Wisconsin has always had “open for business” was the pulp and paper industry – a staple of the state’s economy, and a particularly strong and steady force through the Central, Wisconsin Valley region. Incomes from paper mills supported families up and down the Wisconsin River: Park Falls, Rhinelander, Brokaw, Rothschild, Mosinee, Port Edwards, Whiting, and Wisconsin Rapids.
During this same five year span, paper mills in each of these locations have downsized, closed, been sold, declared bankruptcy, or have been surrounded by unsettling rumors of impending failure.
I grew up a paper mill kid. It was a time of prosperity and also a time of open dialogue. Our state worked with the paper mills for environmental regulation; not always an easy task but one that regarded negotiation highly. I watched my family, relatives, and neighbors negotiate for fair wages and good benefits. I watched these same people retire from these mills. They went on to enjoy retirement, the fruits of their many years of labor. The mills stood strong, investing in and growing our community. Now questions arise with agonizing persistence.
How could the apparent reversal of such rosy promises be explained? Wisconsin doesn’t seem to be “open for business” when so many are closing. And answers are not easy to come by.
Why is more paper sold in the United States increasingly manufactured in China? Why do American producers find it more profitable to ship pulpwood overseas? Are deregulation and “free trade” actually enabling a shift of Wisconsin jobs to foreign markets? How can displaced pulp and paper workers, especially those from smaller communities, such as Brokaw, afford to “retrain” for new vocations with historic cuts to education at all levels; the hallmark of the recent budgets? And what will result from all the lost revenue when important tax bases are so sharply and abruptly reduced—or, in the case of Brokaw, vanish altogether? When workers aren’t paid they can’t buy items and grow our economy.
There are many questions and few answers from our Republican-dominated state government. Wisconsin has seen a parade of puppet legislators who consistently vote for backward, and genuinely caustic acts, all aimed at paving the way for corporate predators to take advantage of a besieged and exploited public.
Since the days of the pineries, pulp and paper have been Wisconsin’s core industry. Today, it stands in mortal jeopardy as one misdirected Republican policy after another fails to address, or even to acknowledge, its needs. A notable irony in this tale of sorrow is the dismal indifference shown by 86th District Assemblyman John Spiros, from the very heart of the Wisconsin Valley, who followed Walker into office in 2012 and has been one of Wisconsin’s most anti-labor legislators ever since.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce is a big-money lobbying group in Madison who are champions of deregulation and union-busting, and the scourge of every working family in the state. They recently cited Spiros for his “100%” voting record, showing how little Spiros respects workers. Let’s not forget his recent attempt at an extremely destructive Workers’ Compensation overhaul.
If there is a ray of hope to be seen under the dark canopy of fear and degradation currently cast upon our once proud state, it may possibly be found in the upcoming election and knowing that we can restore our cherished Wisconsin Valley, and Wisconsin itself, to the respected and noble stature it once enjoyed.