By Mac Trammell
No work was being done at Buena Vista’s Mundet-Hermetite factory last Friday. Employees grouped and chatted, while a Cornhole beanbag-toss game, brought in to boost morale, sat forlornly on the factory’s main work floor.
No one was playing Cornhole. It was the factory’s final day, and everyone was waiting for the final blow, the one they had been bracing for since July.
Mundet-Hermetite, a cigarette paper printer, announced July 15 that it was going to close the Buena Vista plant, sending the factory’s responsibilities to plants in Surgoinsville, Tenn., and Richmond, where Hermetite is headquartered.
For Buena Vista, the factory’s closing will be costly. City Manager Jay Scudder said that the city will lose up to $50,000 a year in taxes. But more than that, the closing will hurt the community.
“[It was a] very sad day when we got the news,” Scudder said.
Maintenance worker Steven Tyree, along with the other 46 employees, knew that cutbacks were coming. Still, he said, “it was a shock.”
Before the announcement in July, production manager Tony McDaniel thought that Mundet-Hermetite would cut the factory’s production or lay off a few employees. But there was no feeling that the entire factory would go under, he said. At least not so soon.
“We could all see it coming, because the cigarette industry is in a downslide,” McDaniel said. “We knew eventually all good things come to an end.”
The factory’s workers were unionized, under the United Steel Workers Union, and the factory itself supplied the best, highest paying jobs in the region at $21 per hour. Mundet-Hermetite, in the wake of its announcement, has agreed to pay for employees’ health insurance until the end of the year and, due to collective bargaining, will issue severance packages to every employee.
Factory’s closing a reflection of the times
Mundet-Hermetite built its Buena Vista factory in 1959 and began making cigarette papers the following year. The factory had its heyday from the ’60s to the early ’90s, employing around 75 workers in those years. But in 1993, Mundet-Hermetite laid off 41 employees, having already felt the decline of the cigarette industry.
Maintenance man Joey Coleman had been employed at the factory for about four years after serving two and half years with the Army. He said he’s going to try to go back to school — take HVAC courses — but laments leaving the military now that his life is in flux. After 10 years of service, he could have retired at 45, he said.
However, he made clear that working for Mundet-Hermetite was no mistake.
“I’m going to miss it,” he said. “It’s one of the best jobs I’ve had.”
Tyree, who had been employed for two years at Mundet-Hermetite and 15 years previously at the large carpet plant of Mohawk Industries in Glasgow, agreed with Coleman.
“[I’ve got] no complaints about the place itself.”
Tyree did say, with Coleman voicing his approval in the background, that he wished Mundet-Hermetite had given workers more time to digest the July announcement, or that the company had timed the announcement better. Many employees had just used their vacation time over the Fourth of July weekend. Tyree said that had the bad news come earlier, workers could have then used their vacation time to find jobs.
About a dozen of the factory’s employees have already found work, according to McDaniel. Both Mundet-Hermetite and the city of Buena Vista have been trying to help the newly unemployed get back on their feet quickly. The city held a job fair for the displaced workers and has been working with individual employees who haven’t yet found a new job.
Former employees will have leave Buena Vista for manufacturing jobs
But there are no manufacturing jobs to be had in Buena Vista. No other industries in the city are hiring. Mundet-Hermetite was the 18th largest employer in Buena Vista, and now workers like Tyree will have to commute to Buchanan or Glasgow to find comparable jobs.
Buena Vista, founded in the 1890s with dreams of being a ritzy vacation spot, has been an industrial town for most of its history. It used to be commonly said: “People in Lexington carry a book to work; people in Buena Vista carry a lunchbox.”
Prior to 1969, there were about 10 factories in Buena Vista, according to McDaniel. In ’69 though, Hurricane Camille came through and flooded most of the factories. While local industries were able to recover, their temporary absence was a huge loss to the community.
Disaster struck again in November 1985 with Hurricane Hugo. The same industries got hit again and several of them had to go out of business as a result. Since then, Buena Vista has declined as a factory town and the downfall of Mundet-Hermetite only continues the trend, following on the heels of Bontex, which went under six years ago.
Coleman, the Army vet, suggested that there were machines in the factory that had been there since the 1950s, and that the factory’s antiquity led, in part, to its demise. He explained that a new press was supposed to have been sent to the Buena Vista factory some years back, but was instead sent to the Surgoinsville plant. He said he believed that had Buena Vista gotten that press, as it originally was intended to, it would be the Surgoinsville factory going under, not Buena Vista’s.
Mundet-Hermetite sells its printed cigarette papers to some of the biggest companies in America: Marlboro, Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. The Buena Vista factory used to produce, in an average 24 hour time period, 15 rolls of paper 51 inches in diameter and about a half a foot in width — five rolls every eight hours — amounting to billions of cigarette papers a day. When a roll is completely rolled out, it extends 21,000 meters, or about 13 miles, in length.
The factory, a beige, rectangular hulk located at the base of a tree-covered hill at the end of West 21st Street, would get the blank white paper and send it through a series of machines and presses. Some machines would perforate the paper; some would apply one of the company’s names on the paper. The paper would then be rolled up and shipped off to the cigarette companies where the final product would be assembled.
The presses are large, at least two stories tall, and span the entire length of the cavernous, warehouse-like workroom at the plant. The machines certainly look like they could produce billions of cigarettes a day, on a busy day. But on that final morning at the factory, no papers were pressed or inked. No one was moving the large rolls, on the prongs of a forklift, from the end of the press to the loading deck. No one was tinkering with machines, or loading the rolls onto the bed of a parked 18-wheeler. No one was sweeping or cleaning.
Only Tyree and Coleman seemed to be doing any work. The two were outside pressure washing a filter, a major dust collector, but were wrapping up their work around 9 a.m. With nothing left to do besides wait for the nail to be hammered into the coffin, Tyree suggested that he and Coleman go inside to play a game of Cornhole.