Closure of printing press marks end of era in Surrey

SURREY — On Saturday at about 3 o’clock in the morning the last newspaper will leave the press at Kennedy Heights printing plant, ending decades of production for Vancouver’s largest dailies.

As the towering presses come to a final halt and silence descends on the plant, 220 highly specialized employees will be forced to look for a new career. Pacific Newspaper Group (PNG), which owns the Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers, announced in September 2013 it will outsource print production to Transcontinental Printing on Annacis Island in Delta.

Peter McQuade, who worked as a pressman from 1983 until he left to join Unifor in 2005, started at Kennedy Heights 18 years ago with 350 other employees.

"For the first year it was a bit of a struggle," recalls McQuade. "It was a new plant, there was some long days when we moved into that plant trying to get production going."

Kennedy Heights was a marriage of sorts for the production for the Sun and Province, which until that year had been operating out of plants on Granville Street in Vancouver and a site behind the Costco on King George Highway in Surrey, respectively.

Mike Bretner loads a roll of paper for the printing press at the Kennedy Heights plant in Surrey. (Photo: ADRIAN MACNAIR)

The Surrey "Flexo" plant, named after the flexography printing technology, is where many of the current employees moved from when it closed down.

Conrad Fischer, a pressman for 28 years, began his apprenticeship at the Granville plant in August 1986, before moving to Flexo.

"I remember going in on a Saturday, apprentices would start an hour early so we’d be there at 6 o’clock in the morning cleaning all the presses, greasing everything, getting all the buckets ready for solvent, spotting all the plates," says Fischer.

In those early years at Kennedy Heights the printing was around the clock and there was plenty of overtime available. The jobs were rock solid, too. Every four years the plant would take on 11 apprentices based on attrition rates, and those who did leave usually went into retirement.

"I remember the older guys saying to me, stick with this job, do well, and you’ve got got a job for life. A job for life."

It’s no exaggeration. The median age of employees at the plant is in the mid-fifties.

Bill Morgan, vice-president of manufacturing, started as production manager when the plant opened. He says he’s seen fourth generation pressmen come through Kennedy Heights, some whose grandfathers worked on the Province’s presses in 1914.

"Over the years there’s been probably a couple of thousand pressmen and mailers that have gone through Pacific Newspaper Group," recalls Morgan. "So it’s a long line of trades that have come through the doors over the years."

Construction of the 220,000-square-foot Kennedy Heights plant on 5.5 hectares at 12091 88th Ave. nearly didn’t happen, according to Morgan. The original idea was to add on to the Flexo plant and shut down the Granville site, but the quality of the print reproduction for the flexographic technology couldn’t be recycled because they were using water-based ink.

At the time it opened in July 1997, the plant was the most technologically advanced printing press in the world. The four presses were designed and installed to produce double-wide, double-round broadsheets in extremely large volumes.

Morgan says the plant has produced a world record-setting 160-page newspaper in one pass off the press on many occasions.

"That’s like cutting a chunk of wood," he says, laughing.

Over the course of 18 years the presses have gone through 600,000 tones of newsprint, 750,000 rolls of newsprint – each roll is 13 kilometres in length – five million kilograms of black ink, three million kilograms of colour ink, and hundreds of thousands of press plates.

And despite the fact the plant is running with much of its original hardware and the same software, they have never missed a production run for any reason.

"Who’s running a Windows 3.1 anymore? That’s kind of the comparison," explains Morgan.

Over the years the plant has delayed production based on breaking news but Morgan recalls one time he got a chance to say the "famous words." The plant had been open for about a year when editorial called production to tell them Princess Diana had perished in a car accident.

The presses were just starting up when Morgan got the call to stop the line.

"I went out there and went, ‘stop the presses!’" he says with a chuckle.

At the time, circulation for the Vancouver Sun was 300,000. Today they print just 90,000 copies.

The decline in circulation has resulted in a reciprocal decline in advertising, which means editorial content is shrinking. Each year fewer readers are buying a physical copy of a newspaper and more are tuning in online to get their news.

"It’s not just the Internet. People’s reading habits have changed. People who didn’t grow up with newspapers, young people aren’t taking to newspapers like my generation."

Ian Shaw separates sections during a pre-print of the Vancouver Sun newspaper special drive section on Thursday (Jan. 29). (Photo: ADRIAN MACNAIR)

Although employees learned 15 months ago that PNG would be closing the plant Fischer says many workers haven’t faced the reality their jobs are coming to an end.

"It doesn’t seem real until the last few days or weeks or moments, right?"

The Langley resident is now faced with a challenging task of finding a new career. He says some of the younger guys have a chance to get into a new trade, while some of the older guys can go into retirement.

"But for the people kind of in my age – I’m going to be 53 this year – it’s kind of an awkward time because it’s really hard at 53 starting at the bottom and looking at different trades," says Fischer.

McQuade says the union put on a job fair to try and explore options for the employees but it can be tough to change after a lifetime in one career. One employee has been a pressman for 45 years. It’s the only life he’s ever known but there just aren’t any jobs left in print production.

"In the mailroom I think the junior guy in that department did 24 years service with the company," says McQuade.

Fischer worked with the union and PNG to settle on a severance package for the remaining employees, estimated to be about $17.5 million. It’s rumoured to be the same amount PNG recently sold the building for. The print assets will also be sold off in the coming months.

There were suggestions the National Post could have been printed at Kennedy heights to keep the plant open, but Fischer says there didn’t seem to be much interest from the owners in saving jobs.

"They’re really looking at digital and they’re looking at people like myself as a legacy cost, as they call it. We’re a liability, not an asset."

Morgan, who will also be out of a job when the plant closes, looks back on Kennedy Heights with a mixture of pride and sorrow.

"I’ve been in this trade personally for 35 years. It’s a sad day. There’s nothing to cheer about on Friday," he says, before thinking and then answering slowly, "Time does move on, and it’s unfortunate, but we live in a different age."