Willamette Industries unions band together for better pensions

On the morning of Jan. 4, several representatives of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers (AWPPW) showed up to leaflet outside the headquarters of Willamette Industries at 1300 SW Fifth Ave., Portland. They were taken by surprise when company representatives leafletted back.

Don Gregor, president of Albany, Oregon-based AWPPW Local 3, had come to leaflet in solidarity with Willamette Industries workers in Campti, Louisiana, who have voted to strike if the company refuses to institute a 401(k) retirement plan. Those workers are represented by Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE).

In December, Gregor met in Nashville, Tenn., with The Willamette Council, consisting of major unions that represent over 6,000 employees of Willamette Industries, to coordinate stategy against the company,which has 106 plants in four countries producing paper products and building material. It reported sales of $4.1 billion in 1999.

"They use their 401(k) as a carrot to convince employees to keep out the union," said Richard Marks, an AWPPW organizer from California. Willamette Industries has a defined benefit pension plan for workers at all of its locations. But in addition, to some other workers - mostly at non-union locations - it offers a 401(k) plan.

Unlike traditional defined benefit pension plans, 401(k) retirement accounts have no guaranteed payout. Instead, payouts grow (or shrink) depending on how investments perform; plus, 401(k) plans can travel with employees when they change employers.

Union officials say Willamette's 401(k) plan became an issue during a recent AWPPW organizing attempt at the company's Duraflake particle board mill in Albany, Ore. Managers told workers that if the union won, they would likely lose their 401(k). Organizers tried to dispute this, but concluded the issue was a key factor in its 131-47 loss last November.

Workers at Willamette's nearby paper mill in Albany, represented by Local 3, also wanted access to the company's 401(k). During their most recent contract negotiations, Gregor said, Local 3 even offered to pay all administration costs to set up the plan - to which the employer would have no obligation to contribute. But Willamette said no, suggesting that contributions would become a negotiable item in future bargaining.

Workers at the Albany paper mill have a pension fund that became fully funded in 1983, meaning the company no longer needs to contribute in order to guarantee the agreed-upon pension.

At the Jan. 4 protest, after the arrival of half a dozen AWPPW members, about an equal number of Willamette office staff were sent down with fliers of their own to hand to passersby.

The company flier suggests that Willamette's compensation and retirement contributions are generous compared with competitors. And it disputes a claim in the union flier that the company never offers 401(k) plans to its union workers, citing 11 unionized Willamette Industries shops on the West Coast that have a 401(k) or 401(a).

But the company doesn't contribute to those plans, countered AWPPW organizer Ken Parsons; only the employees themselves contribute.

Willamette's union critics point to the company's profitability to support their argument that the Campti workers' 401(k) demands are reasonable. Cathy Dunn, Willamette's vice president of corporate communications, acknowledged the company is enjoying increased profitability. But as for sharing the profit with the Campti workers, she suggested that it's the company's $312 million capital investment into the facility over the last dozen years that is the source of increased profit, not an increase in worker productivity.

Willamette offered the workers at Campti a 401(k), to which the company would contribute 50 cents for every $1 employees contribute, but only if they agreed to give up a wage increase, pay more for medical care, and give up overtime pay on Sundays. Gregor predicts the Campti workers will have to strike before the company agrees to offer a 401(k) plan without such concessions.

January 19, 2001 issue

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