The Herald of Everett, Washington
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Published: Thursday, March 29, 2012

  • Mark and Annie Mulligan / The Herald

Voices of the mill: Ronald Baker, 70, of Marysville

Paper Machine Tender, 38 years

In this series, we're telling the stories of what the Kimberly-Clark mill closure means for workers and for Everett, which has been defined by mills for more than a century.
Making paper is a science and an art.
Just ask Ronald Baker, who spent so many years making the stuff that he could tell if it was dry by the way the hair stood up on his arms.
During his long career at Scott Paper Co. and later Kimberly-Clark, he worked all five of the mill's paper machines — monstrous stories-tall metal behemoths.
He's retired now.
A pipe delivered the slush to his machine from the pulp mill. The slush was spread out and run through a drier so it could be wound into gigantic rolls.
At the end of the line, Baker's initials — R.B. —and his shift would be written in crayon on each roll.
Running a paper machine is a high-pressure, high-prestige, high-paying job — one that workers would rise to only after years of experience. Even today, it's rare to find a woman as a machine tender.
The job is far more complicated than pushing a few buttons. There are formulas to dial in for various products. Machine tenders like Baker also makes dozens of adjustments depending on the makeup of the slush that comes through every day.
In his early days during the 1960s, the plant was dirtier and more dangerous. Dust swirled through the air and it was hot, so hot some men collapsed. Sometimes
workers used chemicals without a mask.
He was at work in the 1970s when two men died from a chemical leak.
One time he was working on machine No. 4 when pieces started flying off — at least one as big as a car. Everybody ran for cover. He ran to punch the shut-off button and almost had his head taken off.
Times changed. The plant became cleaner and safer. More of the work became automated. In the 1990s, just before Baker retired, he made most of the adjustments to the machine by touching a computer screen, rather than twisting a knob. Once in awhile he still had to get up close to the machine and use his wrench to adjust a valve.
Other things changed, too, but not for the better.
When he started work in 1961, he made $2.24 an hour. That was good money. As the years passed, he could expect regular pay raises, enough that he could support his family without his wife having to work.
Today, it seems incomes aren't keeping up with the escalating cost of living. He worries about what that means for younger generations.
He noticed, too, that talk at the mill during his first years used to be about the customer. Later, it became about the shareholders.

The Last Smokestack: Go to the main series page

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