This is the story of small midwestern town that prospered as a factory town in the years following the Second World War, rich in paper production and iron foundries. Since then, foreign competition, from which the town’s industry was not protected, has led to wage stagnation and factory closings. Thus the townspeople, traditionally Democratic (“the workers’ party?”), voted in the last election for the presidential candidate who promised to bring back their jobs from abroad and protect them with tariffs from unfair competition. Will he deliver? Does anyone in Washington care?
The story of Neenah, the town in question, can be multiplied a hundred times throughout Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the three traditionally Democratic-voting states that went Republican in the last election. Someone had better start listening to these Americans and making good on promises before they become irretrievably lost and embittered.
Because of the length of the original article that appeared in The New York Times, we have broken it down into three consecutive postings, of which this is the first.
Feeding paper into a giant cutter inside the Neenah Paper mill, a survivor in the region’s declining paper industry.
By NELSON D. SCHWARTZ Photographs by DAMON WINTER Nov. 25, 2017 for The New York Times
NEENAH, Wis. — In Winnebago County, they’ve seen the paper mills close, one by one.
While Kimberly-Clark, founded here in 1872, still employs several thousand people locally, abandoned mills dot smaller towns in the region. Paper production has moved to cheaper locales overseas with less stringent pollution rules. That has left a pall — and a sense of fear and insecurity — hanging over places like Neenah, even as factories in other industries are still humming.
For many, the villain is trade.
Take Neenah Foundry, a 145-year-old operation that employs nearly 1,000 workers here. Its employees have watched in frustration as cheap manhole covers and sewer grates flood into the country from India and elsewhere, where competitors are eligible for government subsidies and face fewer environmental regulations.
“For a long time, trade hasn’t been fair,” said Jeff Lamia, who started work at the foundry earning $5.35 an hour, fresh out of high school nearly 40 years ago, and now makes $27 an hour.