No Paper Lion

Tom Nelson led the fight to save a paper mill in his home county.

By Spencer Black

The cities and regions of Wisconsin go by various monikers. Some are geographic: Minocqua is the Island City and southwestern Wisconsin is Coulee Country. Many are known for their agricultural products (cheese, rutabagas, sausage, etc.). Milwaukee is Cream City for the color of its bricks, and Green Bay is Titletown (you know why).

Add to that list the area between Lake Winnebago and Green Bay. For good reason, that stretch of the Fox River is known as Paper Valley. For much of our state’s history, that area prospered as the producer of paper products. The mills along the Fox constituted the largest concentration of paper manufacturing in the world. Because of corporate machinations and market changes, many of Wisconsin’s paper mills have closed in recent years. The fate of that industry and the families and communities it sustained is at the center of new book by the Outagamie County Executive Thomas Nelson.

Nelson has written “One Day Stronger,” recounting the successful effort to save one of those threatened mills along the Fox. Nelson tells a tale that deserves to be told. It is the story of a community coming together to defend itself against outside economic players oblivious to the well-being of the people who live in a small village in Wisconsin. Ultimately, with determined leadership from local politicians like Nelson and an aggressive local of the United Steel Workers, the mill was saved from the scrap heap.

There were three elements of the story that I found especially compelling. They are the predatory nature of wealthy actors in today’s economy, the important role labor unions can still play, and the ineptness of former Gov. Scott Walker’s economic policy. A little more on each point

The threatened demise of the Little Chutes paper mill is a prime example of the economic forces at work today that have made a few unimaginably rich, but threaten the economic well-being of millions of workers. The potential demise of the Appleton Coated mill pushed by a large, out-of-state financial institution, possibly to enhance its profits from its investment in a competitor, shows why the power of corporate giants needs to be regulated. The mill closure was only stopped because local and union leaders were empowered to contest its shutting by a provision in state law.

At a time when organized labor faces great challenges, the Fox Valley story shows that unions continue to be a valuable asset for workers. Unions are at their best when, as in Little Chute, they represent not just the interests of their members but also the interests of the broader community.

Nelson does an especially good job criticizing the failure of Scott Walker’s jobs policy. At the same time Walker ignored the potential loss of 600 good paying jobs at Appleton Coated, he was lavishing $4 billion in taxpayer dollars on Foxconn. The Foxconn fiasco, which Donald Trump called the eighth wonder of the world, is a pale shadow of the economic miracle promised by Walker and Trump. As one papermaker put it, “Where is our state government? Walker needs to pull himself away from the Foxconn deal and see what’s happening here.”

Thomas Nelson served with me in the state Assembly for several years before he returned to the Fox Valley to lead his home county. He is now vying for the Democratic nomination to take on Ron Johnson in next year’s senate election. His leadership in fighting for jobs at the Appleton Coated mill and his emphasis on the blue-collar middle class will serve him well as he seeks to replace Johnson.

Spencer Black served for 26 years in the state Legislature. Since leaving the Legislature, Black has been vice president for conservation for the national Sierra Club and adjunct professor of planning at UW-Madison. This post originally appeared in the Capitol Times.

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