The LRB is printed on a matte lightweight coated paper. The specifications are exact: it needs to be heavier than newsprint, resistant to heat and the effects of ageing, and good at reproducing colour. It is called ‘improved newsprint’: the paper quality is slightly higher and the ink doesn’t come off on the reader’s hands. Early on, the LRB did use newsprint; in the archives you can see a transition in the late 1980s from soft, yellowed paper to a thicker, higher-grade variety. The American edition of the LRB still used newsprint as recently as twenty years ago. (The paper has been printed separately in the US since the late 1980s, and since last year in Australia.) A forty-page issue requires eight metric tonnes of paper, shipped from Finland in rolls nearly two metres wide, to fulfil just the UK part of the print run (roughly 55,000 copies, about 60 per cent of the total). The oil-based ink is fixed onto the paper by spraying it with water and running it through vast ovens, a process known as heat-setting. Instead of drying, the ink sets like cooling wax. After that the paper is flung four metres up onto air-blowing rollers to dry, then it’s cut and the magazine assembled.
The paper on which the LRB is printed in the UK comes from a mill run by UPM-Kymmene. It used to come from a different Finnish mill, but the company that owns it, Stora Enso, announced in November that it would no longer be shipping enough paper to the UK to cover our print run. (It’s still available in Australia, where we continue to use it.) On New Year’s Day, shortly after we’d reached a deal for new paper with UPM, the workers at its seven Finnish mills went on strike. What was initially supposed to be a three-week walkout has been extended four times as negotiations between UPM and Paperiliitto, the Finnish paper workers’ union, have stalled.
Although the strike was called because of a disagreement over employment contracts, the union couldn’t have chosen a better moment to act. The graphic papers industry, which covers everything from office printing to leaflets to newspapers, has been overproducing for at least a decade, as more and more businesses and publications have moved online. Last year a spokeswoman for Stora Enso estimated the overproduction in Europe at 3.5 million tonnes. When Covid struck, and even more businesses began to move online, manufacturers responded by shuttering mills. Production of graphic paper in Europe dropped by 18 per cent in 2020.
By August 2020, eight of the nineteen mills in Scandinavia had closed either temporarily or permanently: two thousand people lost their jobs. Last year UPM shut down its Kaipola paper mill, making 140 workers redundant. The surge in online shopping during the pandemic led some manufacturers to shift towards producing cardboard packaging – much of it for Amazon. This has meant further job losses, since cardboard machines require fewer people to run them.
Last year, as people returned to the office and the demand for paper rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels, a slimmed-down paper industry was able to raise prices for the first time in years. But scarcity of raw materials, disrupted supply chains, rising energy prices and post-Brexit havoc at ports all over Europe stymied the industry’s recovery. The strike has hit UPM at a particularly vulnerable time, cutting off Europe’s largest source of graphic paper just as demand was finally beginning to overtake supply.
Paper mills produce a wide range of wood products in addition to paper, including pulp and biofuel. Historically, the production of these lines has been separate: the raw materials require different treatments, different machines and differently trained staff. UPM wants to make separate employment agreements with workers in each part of its business. This is unheard of in Finnish mills, which have until now been governed by standardised union contracts. Separate agreements would give UPM leeway to vary pay and conditions according to the profitability of each sector. (It is also proposing an uncompensated increase of between fifty and a hundred hours’ work a year for all pulp and paper workers; that’s an extra two and a half weeks’ work for the same salary.) The union argues that separate agreements will damage the cohesion of the workforce. The Kaipola closure set a bad precedent: twenty of the workers weren’t fired but transferred to another UPM mill in the same town, where they replaced existing staff. As things stand, strike talks are deadlocked. UPM is desperate to modernise, perhaps with the aim of further streamlining operations; the union wants to maintain current working conditions.
This is the longest strike in the history of the Finnish paper industry. Trade unions are strong in Finland, and Paperiliitto is the strongest of all; 95 per cent of production workers in the paper trade are union members. The unions also work together: AKT, the transport workers’ union, instituted a blockade against UPM at the beginning of the strike, refusing to handle its products at ports and train stations. Any paper that is made won’t make it out of the country. But it isn’t being made. UPM’s warehouses in Finland are all but empty.
Meanwhile, industries that need paper are scrambling to cover the shortfall. Magazines are being hit especially hard. Most of the newsprint used in the UK is manufactured here, but improved newsprint and other coated papers aren’t widely produced. The strike has prevented the production of more than a million tonnes of coated graphical paper – about 25 per cent of the total European supply. At the end of January, the European federation for print and digital communication, Intergraf, estimated that 40 per cent of the paper that would be needed from mid-February onwards would be impossible to procure. The longer the action continues, the more pressure there is on the limited number of suppliers that remain, and the more expensive paper will become. In February, the price of coated papers was up 78 per cent from last year. The manufacturers may have wanted higher prices, but dramatic hikes are bad for the industry’s stability as well as for buyers.
Other industries are affected too. Supplies of label substrate – the shiny material from which you peel labels – are depleting, which could affect the availability of everything from apples to Xanax. (Unlike publishing paper, labels have been in greater demand since the online shopping boom.) On 6 February, it was reported that a shareholder vote on a billion-pound transaction at the asset management company Abrdn was postponed because it didn’t have enough paper to print necessary documents.
The LRB has never dealt with such a severe disruption to the supply chain. Brexit was always going to present problems, given that the magazine ordered its paper from Europe, but canny stockpiling kept things running smoothly. For the time being, the LRB can secure the right kind of paper from other suppliers: we’re currently sourcing it from a UPM mill in Ayrshire. But if the strike continues it will become harder and harder to get hold of the high-quality paper the LRB needs. Some magazines have already had to reduce the number of pages per issue. There might even be a glossy issue of the LRB should that kind of paper prove easier to come by. Or there’s always newsprint. Just don’t read it while you’re eating.
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