International solidarity ends in win for New York paper mill workers

FULTON, N.Y. - A pair of international union allies helped Paperworkers at the Huhtamaki Packaging Plant in Fulton, N.Y., defeat a terrible company health insurance scheme. And then their parent union, the Steelworkers, helped its local find a replacement that kept the insurance - but that saved the employer $500,000 a year.

All that led to a new three-year contract between Huhtamaki and USW Local 4-54 this fall, according to Pulp Truth, a publication of the USW's paperworkers sector.

The saga started when Huhtamaki, a subsidiary of a Finnish company, proposed what USW Paper Sector negotiators called "the worst plan they've ever seen put on the table in the industry."

"Huhtamaki originally proposed to replace the HMO health care plan with a high- deductible health insurance plan that literally threatened the livelihood of the workers if they got sick," Pulp Truth added. Huhtamaki also wanted to eliminate overtime pay on weekends and after eight hours a day. The firm's original contract proposal, with those two elements as lowlights, was overwhelmingly voted down.

To emphasize the point, the local bought 500 T-shirts and members wore them on solidarity days. There were also "blue (union) hairnet" solidarity days, and more T-shirts were shipped to a sister paper plant in Maine. But the firm still didn't budge, so USW enlisted overseas unions to help.

USW linked up the local with the Finnish union and the Australian Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), Local 4-54 President Al Smith said.  Those unions put pressure on Huhtamaki's Finnish parent firm. CFMEU told Huhtamaki it was treating its U.S. workers unfairly on health care. All that forced Huhtamaki to junk its health care scheme and bargain reasonably.

Then USW went one step further, and helped its local find a replacement health care administrator, POMCO. It could save the Huhtamaki $500,000 a year by taking over management of the Fulton plant's current HMO plan from a company-wide administrator, Smith explained.

"Huhtamaki approved the administrative change, and now the workers can keep their HMO and are guaranteed no premium increases for 2012," Pulp Truth reported. 

"Our solidarity was what got us the contract," Smith said. "We bargained hard and we bargained smart with assistance from the International. We just kept at them. They eventually saw that if they did not move, there would be a work stoppage." The contract keeps the HMO and the workers' pensions and has raises in its last two years.

 

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