About five years ago I became captivated by the names on the bottoms of brown paper bags and subsequently wrote a post in which I imagined the difficult lives of those who assembled them. (See: https://springbyker.wordpress.com/2011/03/04/who-makes-your-paper-bags/) To my surprise, it became my most popular post, and after a couple of years I began receiving posted comments from current and former employees of Duro Manufacturing, mostly at the Elizabeth, N.J. plant that supplied bags to merchants in the Northeast, where I live.
My imaginings about the manufacturing process and work conditions were inaccurate, as an employee with the screen name Bagguette commented a year ago: “The machines normally put out about 500 bags a minute, so that ‘gluing’ is from a nozzles [sic] steadily applying paste to the paper as it runs through the machine. […] The most work a bagmaker does is stack the pallets with the bags after they come out, and constantly make sure the machine is putting everything (ink, paste) in the right place.”
Bagguette and another reader, Whitfield, wrote that the bags are made by high-speed machines monitored by human operators, something that would’ve been obvious to me had I thought more about it – clearly there was no Santa’s Workshop with elves sitting at little benches, folding and applying glue to paper bags. Several Duro employees at one time or another agreed that the employees were hard-working and dedicated; as one, Alex, put it, “it takes a lot more effort and more people then you think to make your paper bag colection [sic]”.
Whitfield and Bagguette disagreed a bit on working conditions; Whitfield called them “unsafe and stressful,” while Bagguette harangued me:
“Oh please with the downtrodden worker bit. […] This isn’t a bad job for working class manufacturing. I make about the same or more than people who go into other jobs in factories or hospitals that require a lot more training and less of a chance of hiring, and especially more than restaurant servers and bartenders I’ve known who laughed at the description of being a paper bag maker. Meanwhile I watch people in shipbuilding and steel mills and chemical factories get laid off while I haven’t missed a paycheck in nine years. I can also go a whole workday without having a conversation with another person, and considering other jobs I’ve had before this and that I’m qualified for […], that is a very big advantage. It’s a no-nonsense job not trying to stick people on Facebook pages or have potluck Christmas parties or any of that stuff that just makes work really aggravating. I clock out and don’t have to think about work until I go back and clock in.
“Next time do some research. […] I’d much rather have my ‘dead-end’ machine operator job fighting a machine than your average middle management job where people get a fancy title, a ton of ridiculous responsibilities like supervising idiots or cleaning the coffeemaker, and still only make in the $20-30,000 range while I make well more than that for much less of a hassle.”
I felt a little embarrassed when I read her comments – she and I probably earned a comparable wage, and I thought once again about how much “nonsense” I’ve put up with in various white-collar jobs over the years (and yes, I do have to clean the coffeemaker in my current job. “Supervising idiots” still feels mean, though.)
However, Bagguette and her New Jersey co-workers may be under new management. According to Whitfield, “The plant manager was brought in from the closed Virginia plant to dismantle the Elizabeth [N.J.] plant. […] If you check Duro history, you’ll find upper management changes constantly and Elizabeth suffers.” According to the bag codes Whitfield wrote about, the factory is still open, but the brown bags reflect the latest change. The simple Duro logo has been updated with a stylized S shape surrounding the brand name; several logos tout the bag’s green credentials, from a tiny frog inside a Rainforest Alliance Certified badge to the chasing-arrows symbol; and the manufacturer is now identified as NOVOLEX/ Duro Bag. All that’s remained the same is the manufacturing code, and the machine operator’s name has vanished.
According to an online industry newsletter of the Association of International Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators, a multinational corporation is Bagguette’s new boss. As usual with international mergers and acquisitions, it’s hard for a layperson to even keep track of the management chain. Apparently NOVOLEX merged with Packaging Dynamics, which had purchased Duro in 2014 – no, wait; some entity called Wind Point Partners bought NOVOLEX, and the whole thing is worth nearly $2 billion.
“Packaging Dynamics, which is owned by funds managed by Kohlberg & Co., manufactures a broad portfolio of flexible, paper-based food packaging products including specialty bags, specialty sheets and wraps, interfolded tissue, pan liners, and freezer/ butcher paper products, as well as specialty laminated foil products.”
So the company that owns the company that owns Duro – I think – is owned by “funds managed by” another company. With a chain like that, good luck finding anyone who gives a damn about an individual worker in the industrial heart of New Jersey. So, Bagguette, even if I wasn’t quite accurate about your take-home pay, I still stand by the first sentence of my original blog post: “Sometimes I’m reminded of the anonymity of jobs on the bottom of the wage and respect scale.” Now we don’t even get to read your name to remind us that a human being helped create that bag that holds our bread.