Darrin Seiberlich followed in his father’s footsteps when he took a job in the St. Paul Pioneer Press printing plant nearly 30 years ago. Seiberlich’s co-worker Jim Anderson traces his roots at the newspaper one generation further, to his grandfather.
Those legacies and others will reach the end of the line Feb. 16, when the Pioneer Press plans to close its St. Paul plant and lay off about 170 full- and part-time workers, including members of the Teamsters, Electrical Workers, Newspaper Guild and Machinists unions.
“It’s a hard transition,” said Seiberlich, a foreman at the plant and member of Teamsters Local 120. “It’s not just our lives; a lot of us were brought up as kids around here.”
Under the terms of a five-year contract, the Pioneer Press, which traces its roots back to the state’s first newspaper, the Minnesota Pioneer, will outsource the work of printing a newspaper across the Mississippi River, to the rival Star Tribune. The Pioneer Press plant, located near the St. Paul Downtown Airport at 1 Ridder Circle, will go up for sale.
Workers learned about the plant closing in November, when management called an interplant meeting. David Handlos, a press operator at the newspaper since 1970 and shop steward for Teamsters Local 1M, said the news caught most employees by surprise.
“We figured it was a rah-rah type meeting,” Handlos said. “All of a sudden they say, ‘Boom, the place is closing.’ It was very unexpected. It was completely out of the blue. We didn’t have a clue.”
From shock to acceptance
Much has been made of print media’s decline in an increasingly digital world, and the Pioneer Press plant closing reflects a trend of job losses in the industry nationwide. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports nearly 209,000 U.S. workers were employed in “print machine operations” in 1999, a total that had dropped to 173,000 by 2012.
But longtime workers at the Pioneer Press had long since learned to deal with rumors of the newspaper’s decline.
“They’ve been saying ever since I can remember, ‘Oh, the newspaper’s going to go the way of the dinosaur, it isn’t going to last,’” Handlos said. “Well, it’s lasted.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come and go as they’ve shut down departments as the technology overtakes them, but I never thought it would be shut down completely.”
In the two months since news of the closing broke, the prevailing mood has shifted, Seiberlich said, from “total shock” to acceptance.
“Being in the news business as long as we have, we’ve watched everything change,” Seiberlich said. “Everything in the world is changing, and this is just part of it.”
As the printing equipment inside the plant changed over the years, so too did the product. Seiberlich remembered using “drums” – a cylindrical style of printer – during the first half of his career. Handlos saw the plant transition from lead-type presses to computerized, web-offset presses.
“This was a state-of-the-art facility when they moved in here,” Anderson said.
More recently, the plant has adapted to “zoning” strategies designed to customize the product to serve local audiences. “People in different neighborhoods might get two different newspapers,” Seiberlich explained.
In the weeks following the announcement, workers’ union representatives met with management to negotiate severance packages that will be based on tenure with the company. The Pioneer Press also has directed workers to resources available through the state’s Dislocated Worker Program.
But for printing-plant lifers like Anderson and Seiberlich, for whom a job at the press was practically a birthright, the uncertainty looming beyond Feb. 16 is a very new feeling.
“Other than four years in the Navy, this has been my only job, the only thing I’ve ever known,” Seiberlich said.
Anderson expects it will be “surreal” not driving to the plant Feb. 17.
“This is the stage in your life where if you’re going to make a career change, it’s something to think about,” he added. “But it’s always hard, and there will be some people I’m definitely going to miss.”
For older workers like Handlos, the plant closing hastens a decision to retire. “I was real close to pulling the plug anyway, but it still came earlier than I really wanted it to,” he said.
Bill Henry, a press operator with 44 years of experience at the plant, is on the fence. “I’m going to take it easy for the rest of winter, then maybe see if there’s something else out there I’m interested in,” he said.
Henry has a hard time believing he will enjoy another job as much as he’s enjoyed printing a newspaper.
“For as long as I’ve been here, I pretty much know my job inside and out,” he said. “Anything that goes wrong, you can fix it.
“At the end of each day, after you put out the product, you’re done with that day. And tomorrow it’s something new again.”