KIMBERLY — NewPage Corp. workers won't go quietly when their paper mill shuts down Monday, and Saturday they, their families, friends and community showed they aren't ready to give up the fight.
A crowd of well over 3,000 people, from elderly in wheelchairs to young parents pushing babies in strollers, descended on Memorial Park to demonstrate "Papermaker Pride" and lend their support in the shadow of the big blue building that means so much to Kimberly.
Many carried signs calling on NewPage's owners to "Run it … or Sell it" and that chant became their rallying cry throughout the two-hour event that opened and closed with the blowing of the mill's steam whistle. At one point a call was made by cell phone to Mark Suwyn, chief executive officer of NewPage, and the crowd repeated its chant.
"This is a show of solidarity," said Wayne Crosby, 51, Appleton, after he and his wife, Lynlee, 47, signed a petition asking the International Trade Commission to reconsider its decision to allow the dumping of imported paper into the U.S. market.
The couple, worried the plant's shutdown will devastate the community to its core, said they came to show moral support for friends who work at the mill. "We're showing them they are not standing alone," said Wayne Crosby. "Will this rally get the proper people to the table to make the decision to stay open? I don't think so, but at the same time you've got to keep trying."
Many like Kevin Hietpas, 46, of Darboy, who has worked at the mill for 28 years, signed a giant card titled "Real Damage, Real People" taped to a storage shed.
"This is like losing a family," said Hietpas, still in shock over the closing but heartened by the turnout for the rally. "It's really hard. This really caught everybody by surprise."
Jean Coenen, 50, Kimberly, also signed, noting two generations of her family's livelihood is entwined in that mill. Her dad, Tony Oudenhoven, worked to retirement there and her husband, Dave, has put in 31 years.
At worst, the rally would shore up workers losing their jobs, she said. At best, it might provide a "glimmer of hope that NewPage will change its mind."
U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Appleton, said he will take those signatures to the International Trade Commission when he testifies Oct. 2. Kagen told the crowd NewPage's shutdown is an example of corporate greed, and unfair and unbalanced trade deals that have been sending U.S. jobs overseas. "We're only here today because of a failed trade policy."
Kagen is also one of four Wisconsin congressional members to request a meeting with John Snow, chairman of Cerberus Capital Management, NewPage owner, to discuss the closing and potential buyers.
The rally drew elected officials from both sides of the aisle, and several described what they have done to assist the effort. Nearly all spoke in opposition to questionable U.S. trade policies that led to this latest loss of jobs at a highly productive mill.
"So Kimberly goes, so goes the nation," said state Rep. Tom Nelson, D-Kaukauna. "If we can't keep a profitable, successful mill going, how can we keep any other facility open and running?"
"I've always supported free trade but I think it's time we also have to have fair trade," said state Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah.
Union leaders stressed that the rally is the beginning of the fight not the end. "It's not over until the fat lady sings and the big old gal has not even begun to hum," said Dan Sawall, one of the organizers.
Happy with the turnout, Andy Nirschl, president of Local 2-9 of the United Steelworkers union, said he hoped NewPage is listening. "I hope they heard this and correct their mistake."
Calling it the best labor rally he has seen in more than 20 years, Jon Geenen, international United Steelworkers representative, said workers and the community aren't going to sit by this time and let another paper mill close.
"This isn't a wake. This is a wakeup call for Kimberly and the Fox Valley. We will not — we cannot — just walk out quietly into the night."