Political analysts and former state senators Ethan Strimling and Phil Harriman discuss the “good old days” when papermaking was king in Maine.

Ethan: What happened to the days when a high school graduate could apply to the local paper company and earn a job that paid a living wage with health and retirement benefits? Today, these jobs are becoming as scarce as a mountain lion in Maine.

Phil: Once upon a time, Mainers embraced papermaking as a symbiotic relationship between our vast fiber-rich forests and quality jobs. A relationship where one could enjoy life in Maine’s great outdoors with a pickup truck, snowmobile and a camp leased on paper company land. This was “The Way Life Should Be.”

Ethan: Are you saying the jobs have disappeared because the people of Maine no longer embrace papermaking? It’s our fault that paper companies have decided to downsize or disappear to other countries?

Phil: I’m saying there is a cultural difference in how we used to embrace these companies. In the 1980s, unfortunately, that relationship began to shift from one of partnership to one of antagonism.

Ethan: I’m not sure your memory is as clear as it should be. The good old days you are embracing also were days when companies could dump nasty chemicals into the Androscoggin River that flowed through my wife’s hometown of Livermore Falls or belch air pollution so foul you would gag walking outside in Westbrook. Not sure that was “The Way Life Should Be.”


Phil: It wasn’t. And there is no doubt the paper companies got away with more than they should have. But in those days, the money was flowing and many people were willing to look the other way.

Ethan: And then people said enough and took action. Environmentally, it was clear Maine would die if things didn’t change fast, so the people and government had to act aggressively.

Phil: Yes, they did. But perhaps too aggressively. Look, the paper companies bear much of the responsibility here. They were extremely reckless. Hence great progress began and companies were put on notice that they needed to be more innovative and respectful that air and water belonged to all of us. What once was “chunks” became “particles” going into the air and water. But that wasn’t fast enough nor acceptable to environmentalists. By the 1990s, all these new rules and regulations were causing rural Maine to go bankrupt and nobody realized it yet.

Ethan: Well, you were a senator on the Natural Resources Committee by the early 1990s. Are you accepting some of the responsibility for this “bankruptcy?”

Phil: Many of us on the committee tried hard to find a balance between our natural resources and the jobs that were in jeopardy. But the ferociousness of the attack from the environmental community with all the bills and referenda just led the companies to respond with their feet and move elsewhere. The war on papermakers and foresters was coming from all directions.

Ethan: I wasn’t in the Legislature at that time, but I find it hard to believe companies simply packed up and left because they were mad about a few pieces of legislation. If there was money to be made, they would fight to make it. For me, the issue became more about international trade agreements that made it easier for companies to get cheap labor elsewhere and the weakening of labor laws that made it easier to break unions here.


Phil: Don’t get me wrong, the issue of these companies pulling up stakes and downsizing is multilayered. Certainly, international issues played a part, especially in relation to the bloated union contracts that drove up our labor costs in comparison to other countries and states.

Ethan: Those same “bloated contracts” that allowed Maine people to live the “Maine Dream” you mention above?

Phil: Those same contracts that didn’t change with the times. But it was also the tax rates we imposed that impeded growth. When you tax new equipment that will employ people for a generation at a rate that de-incentivizes a company’s desire to invest, the spiral begins.

Ethan: During your tenure, the Legislature passed the largest corporate welfare bill in our history to offset those taxes (taxes that had been in place for decades, mind you). Yet manufacturing simply took the tax money and ran. Unfortunately, they still are.

Phil: Your so-called “corporate welfare” was championed by your man Gov. Angus King and legislative Democrats. But it was simply too little, too late. Foresters and paper makers got the message and unloaded their land, stopped re-investing in new machinery, and sold what amounted to the salvage value of what was once a great investment.

Ethan: The good news is that we still have fiber-rich forests, much improved forest management and, in spite of technology, we still need paper. Time for a fresh start.


Phil: Now you’re smelling the coffee instead of the stench. Time to be bold and clear. Come here, invest in sustainable papermaking by incentivizing eco-friendly mills with well-defined and consistent regulations, so capital can be confidently invested for the long term.

Ethan: With guarantees that our air and water will be the highest priority, public access is welcomed, and sustainable incomes for workers are assured.

Phil: Imagine how quickly things would improve in the “other Maine” as we become the model where nature, people and businesses co-exist.

Ethan: Now you’re sounding like one of my people…

Phil Harriman is a former Republican state senator from Yarmouth. Ethan Strimling is a former Democratic state senator from Portland. They can be contacted on Facebook at Agree to Disagree or Twitter: @senpeh and @ethan6_2.

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