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Nearly 300 lose jobs at Blandin
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U-P-M Kymmene's Blandin Paper Mill will lay off 298 workers as it shuts down two of four production lines. (MPR photo/Chris Julin)
Nearly 300 workers at the Blandin paper mill in Grand Rapids have lost their jobs. That's more than a third of the workers at the plant. Blandin is owned by UPM Kymmene of Finland. UPM announced that it's shutting down two of the four production lines at the mill in Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids, Minn. — Tim Gibeau, 35, has worked at the Blandin paper mill for 16 years. He has two brothers who work there too. Their father worked at Blandin until the day he died. When Tim Gibeau got to the paper plant Wednesday morning, he found out about the shutdown.

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Image Tim Gibeau

Hundreds of workers are waiting for letters from the company telling them whether they lost their jobs. Tim Gibeau' s brothers are waiting for letters. He didn't have to wait. He lost his job right away.

"Immediately," he says. "I was working this morning, and as soon as I found out, I left and came home."

Tim Gibeau was surprised that the announcement came when it did, but he's been expecting something like it for years. The machines that the company is shutting down are decades old, and nowhere near as efficient as newer machines.

Tim Gibeau says everyone at Blandin knew it was only a matter of time. That's why he started taking classes a few years ago. He got a bachelor's degree in business management last May. And it looks like that foresight paid off.

"When I got home, my mother had called me," he explains. "They had somebody who'd just quit at their business, so I already have a new job."

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Image The Blandin plant

Not all the Blandin workers will be so fortunate. Grand Rapids is in Itasca County, and the unemployment rate in the county is higher than the state average. It'll be hard to replace 300 jobs in a town of fewer than 9,000 people. Not many places in Grand Rapids pay as well as Blandin.

"Before the announced shutdown of these two paper machines Blandin accounted for approximately 31 percent of the gross domestic product of Itasca County, or Grand Rapids," says Stephen Wilcox, president of the Grand Rapids State Bank. "So, if you take 800 jobs, reduce it by 300 jobs, you do the math and tell me. It's a significant reduction, a ripple effect all the way along the line."

Loggers will lose work. Grocery stores and car dealers will lose business.

"The tendency is to throw up your arms and say we've had it," says Tom Saxhaug, who represents Grand Rapids in the state Senate. "Well that's not really true. We've got many good programs and agencies working to create jobs in northern Minnesota. And we will continue. This is just a setback for the time being."

Some people in Grand Rapids were making a dark joke this morning. They said, "We're lucky. We only lost 300 jobs. Brainerd lost 600 when its paper mill closed last year."

The paper industry worldwide is struggling. It's producing more paper than the market demands.

Blandin has been downsizing for years. Last fall, Blandin's hourly workers voted to drop the independent union they'd belonged to for 85 years. They joined the Teamsters instead. Teamsters secretary Pat Radzak says workers had more security when the company was locally-owned.

"They'd work together, they'd keep the jobs in Grand Rapids," Radzak says. "Now as a result of UPM Kymmene buying it, they don't give a rat's ass about people in Grand Rapids no more. It's all money."

The majority of the paper mills in Minnesota are now owned by multi-national corporations based outside the United States.

A written statement from UPM Kymmene says the old machines at Blandin can't be profitable any longer. The company says it will give the laid-off workers two months pay. That's what federal law requires when a company lays off a third or more of the work force at a plant.

From the state, workers will receive unemployment compensation. And they might qualify for help with re-training or relocation through the state's dislocated workers fund.

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