COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — A potential work stoppage is looming this week at one of the largest employers in Russell County. Talks between WestRock and its three unions have stalled. And the current agreement expires this week.
The agreement between WestRock and its unions expired 11 months ago. Extensions have been issued. Contract talks have been ongoing. But there is no new agreement. And Thursday – 9 a.m. — is the deadline.
There is a bright yellow line on the pavement outside the gates at the WestRock paper mill in southern Russell County. It tells a story.
That is the WestRock property line. And if the nearly 465 union employees start picketing Thursday morning, that will be the line they can’t cross.
“We are very good. We are very efficient at what we do,” said Bobby Watson, president Local 971 which represents the employees that work with the paper and getting it out the doors. “We consider that our mill. Because we are stewards … The corporation owns the equipment, owns the mill but we are the stewards of that place. We are the ones who make it go, right? We are the ones who sacrifice all the time to make this place profitable. And for the company to make this more is unreasonable.”
Three unions affiliated with the United Steelworkers — Local 971, Local 1471 which works with the trees, pulp, and front end of the process; and Local 1972, which represents the maintenance workers – represent the unionized labor force.
Leaders of those unions say talks with WestRock have stalled and the company and the unions are preparing for Thursday’s work stoppage.
WRBL reached out to WestRock for comment. Here – in part – is what a company spokesman had to say.
“The Company’s Final Offer will remain on the table for possible re-vote until that time. WestRock believes the Offer to be fair and competitive and is hopeful an agreement can be reached with union membership before the current contract expires.”
The paper mill produces coated paper, which is used in consumer packaging.
To produce that specialized paper, employees work an unconventional schedule that requires many of them to work all three shifts – day, evening, and overnight — during any given month.
The union leaders tell WRBL that this is about protecting language in their contract has to do with overtime and pay to protect them for working these unconventional hours.
“The company is wanting to relieve us of contract language that offers us protection for workers with understaffing and overtime,” Watson said. “They have offered to buy that language. Our union has said that language is not for sale.”
And Watson says there is a reason that the union wants to keep that language in any new contract.
“It holds the corporation accountable for the abuse of the workforce,” Watson said. “And it’s not for sale.”
These are good paying jobs. The union workers annual wages range from $50,000 dollars to $110,000 dollars. That includes overtime pay. When the strike starts, pay and insurance stop.
And the average union worker has been in that job for about 20 years.
The unions were holding training sessions at a local hotel preparing members for the possible strike. Those sessions are expected to continue tomorrow.