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Workers get the sack, and paper-bag factory gets ready to pack it in

December 11, 1986|TIM WATERS

The old Bemis Co. paper-bag factory in Wilmington is almost history. The machinery has been removed, bulletin boards stripped bare, desks emptied and company records packed. Of the 150 workers who recently worked at the plant, only office manager Jack Hott and two or three others remain.

By next week, they will be gone, too, laid off with the rest.

"We're down to our last few file cabinets," the 57-year-old Hott said the other day as he sat in his office. "We're almost finished."

Since Bemis announced last summer that it would shutter the factory by year's end, Hott, who lives in Buena Park, has attended to the details of closing down a plant that for decades operated in the community and provided a steady paycheck for its employees, many of whom spent the better part of their working lives at the plant.

Even though the the paper-bag industry has been declining for several years, the employees never expected Bemis to shut down the Wilmington plant.

"We didn't think they would close this plant outright because they owned the building," said Art Carter, a Wilmington resident who worked at the plant for nearly 38 years. "We thought they would hold onto it."

Hott, a 30-year veteran of Bemis, said that while most of the men and women were pink-slipped several months ago, he and a few others have remained to pay the final bills and balance the books. Most of the plant's remaining stock of paper bags has been sold. Its machinery has been transferred to Bemis' eight other bag plants scattered throughout the country, and the building has been sold to a trucking company, he said.

"The closing was a shock to a lot of people and a shock for the community because we had been here so many years," Hott said. "A priest called us and said, "Can I talk to the president of the company to see if I can change his mind?' "

Bemis, a Fortune 500 conglomerate, has manufactured paper bags in Wilmington since the late 1930s, the last 32 years in a sturdy, 165,000-square-foot building off Pacific Coast Highway at the corner of Sanford Avenue. Over the years, millions of large paper bags for goods ranging from cement to chicken feed to dried milk were manufactured at the plant for various customers.

The Minneapolis-based company said it reluctantly decided to shut down the plant because of a combination of factors, most notably a move by some former buyers of the large bags to handle their goods in bulk form, increased competition from plastic bag manufacturers and foreign competition.

As a result, according to the company, at least 16 paper-bag plants similar to the one in Wilmington have been closed by various companies since 1981, four by Bemis. Even so, the industry is operating at 65% capacity, the company said.

Hott said Bemis did not say specifically why it chose to close the Wilmington Plant, but he speculated that the firm wanted to consolidate its West Coast paper-bag operation at its larger plant in Vancouver, Wash.

"We've been in a declining market for the last five years," said William McDermott, an operations manager for the Bemis Co. Paper Bag Division in St. Louis. "When we look into the crystal ball, it's anticipated we will be facing a market which is going to decline 3% each year for the next five years.

"It's a no-growth industry," said McDermott, who managed the Wilmington plant from 1976 to 1982. "We have reached the pinnacle."

Hott estimated that of the 150 employees who recently were employed at the plant--at one time more than 250 worked at the factory--perhaps as many as 75% resided in Wilmington, other South Bay cities or Long Beach. About 45 of the people laid off had worked at the plant for more than 20 years.

Hott said that all the plant's employees 55 or over are eligible for early retirement, and, except for a couple of employees who had worked at the plant for less than a year, everyone received severance pay. The plant's workers earned an average of $10.50 an hour plus fringe benefits, he said.

Although he will continue to work for Bemis at its Orange County office for several months after the Wilmington plant finally closes, Hott said that he will then look for work elsewhere. He said he has written a resume, but doesn't like it. His age and the good salary he presently earns probably will work against him when he starts to shop for a job, he said.

"That's the only thing I have to overcome, the 'you're overqualified' thing," Hott said. "That's a ploy they use, and one that I probably haven't been averse to using over the years."

Carter, 60, also believes his age will work against him in finding a new job. "Calling around to employers you say, 'Well, I worked for this plant for 37 years,' and right away they know how old you are," he said.

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