PORT ANGELES, Wash. --- Union paperworkers walked their picket line round-the-clock in chill spring weather here last week demanding that Nippon Paper resume "good faith" contract talks. They ended the walkout March 25 when the company came back to the bargaining table.
The 130 workers at the mill voted unanimously to strike Wednesday, March 20 when the company attempted to impose, unilaterally, their "best and final offer," a take-away scheme. It was the first work stoppage at the mill since 1984. The walkout was greeted with strong support in this union-conscious mill town with residents delivering food, doughnuts, coffee, and leaning on their horns as they drove by.
The owners plead that they have lost market share and the workers must sacrifice to keep the mill profitable. Picketers marching near the mill entrance last Friday debunked the company's pleas of poverty.
"They are building that biomass plant at a cost of over $71 million," said Rod Weekes, a spokesman for the strikers pointing to a big plant under construction just inside the mill entrance.
The biomass plant is scheduled to begin operations this September despite strong protests by the environmental movement. "That plant will run a generator and provide power for the mill and generate surplus electricity that the company can sell," Weekes said.
Nippon pleas of poverty, he added, ring hollow in the face of this major upgrade in the mill's efficiency.
"Right now we are engaged in an unfair labor practices strike. We feel that we have been bargaining in good faith," Weekes continued. "We'd like the company to come back to the bargaining table. It's just a 'take it or leave' package they have offered. That's no way to reach an agreement."
The mill at the base of Ediz Hook, a sand pit that stretches out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca has been a landmark of the Port Angeles skyline since Crown Zellerbach opened it in December 1920. Crown-Z sold the mill to Nippon Corporation in 2003. It produces newsprint used in the production of the Peninsula Daily News and other newspapers in the U.S. The mill also produces paper for advertising flyers and other light-duty paper products. Much of the paper produced at the mill is exported to Asia and Australia.
Nippon placed quarter-page ads in the Sunday edition of the Peninsula Daily News that read, "Now Hiring: Nippon Paper Industries USA is accepting qualified applicants for all positions.... Successful applicants are intended to be hired as permanent replacement workers." The jobless rate on the North Olympic Peninsula is above 11 percent and Nippon is resorting to the dirtiest of dirty tricks to break the strike.
Greg Pallesen, the International Vice President of the AWPPW drove up from Portland, Oregon, to assist the workers. "We want the company back at the bargaining table to bargain in good faith. Good faith bargaining is required by law," Pallesen told the People's World. "We've been bargaining with them for two years. We believe their goal is implementation of their final offer. We are still bargaining. We believe their attempt to implement their final offer unilaterally is illegal."
Represented by the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers (AWPPW), Local 155, the workers earlier filed an "unfair labor practices" complaint with the National Labor Relations Board charging that the Japanese-owned company has engaged in stalling tactics for nearly two years. That complaint is expected to be heard in April.
Pallesen said there are many unresolved issues on the table. "Nippon is a multinational corporation making a lot of money in the world. They have been given a lot of tax breaks."
AWPPW Local 155 "testified in Olympia in support of the biomass facility," he added. "As soon as the biomass plant is near completion, this is the thanks the workers get. Nippon wants to operate that plant on the backs of the workers. They ought to be ashamed of themselves."
Pallesen pointed out that the stock market is soaring with corporations reporting record high profits. "We have the right to be bargaining and getting the best pensions ever, the best medical benefits, and the best wages." Instead, the corporations demand outrageous takeaways in wages and benefits.
"International Paper got more than three billion dollars in tax breaks over two years. What did they do with those tax breaks? They invested in paper mills all over the world, in Indonesia, China. The Koch Brothers own Georgia Pacific. I don't even know how much they got in tax concessions. They get these tax breaks with no strings attached and then export the jobs overseas."
Weekes said he has been employed at the paper mill for 17 years and before that worked at the Rayonier mill for 23 years until that plant closed down permanently. "The way the economy is going, right now, the tax dollars we generate with our labor and the revenue we earn, we are a vital part of the local economy," Weekes added. "We spend our wages locally. There are more than 200 employee at this mill---130 hourly employees and 70 salaried. We create maybe another 1,000 jobs."
The mill, he said, is in the "top 10" employers on the North Olympic. The jobs and income generated by these millworkers, Weekes concluded "are the lifeblood of our community."
Photo: Tim Wheeler/PW