Longview mill workers end strike without a contract

The strike is over at at the Kapstone paper mill and box plant in Longview, Washington. AWPPW Local 153 made an unconditional offer to return to work on Sept. 3 — Day 7 of the strike — and the company accepted the following day. Strikers began returning on Labor Day. Local 153 president Kurt Gallow said all 775 of the strikers returned to work by Sept. 10, except five who the company accuses of picket-line misconduct.

Kurt Gallow
AWPPW Local 153 president Kurt Gallow

Kapstone Paper and Packaging, headquartered in Illinois, has four paper mills and 6,200 employees. It’s the largest kraft paper producer in the United States, and the fifth largest producer of container-board and corrugated packaging products. After acquiring Longview Fibre in 2013, it proposed further concessions from Local 153, the Longview-based affiliate of Association of Western Pulp & Paper Workers (AWPPW). AWPPW a division of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.

Kapstone declared an impasse in bargaining, and on Aug. 10 imposed its own final contract offer. That offer includes raises of 2 percent a year for 8 years, but also cuts in health benefits. The company intends to replace its current generous-benefit full-family health plans with high-deductible versions as of Jan. 1. Local 153 members gave up their defined benefit pension and retiree health benefits in their last contract with Longview Fibre, and were in no mood to accept further cuts at fast-growing and profitable Kapstone.

Instead they went on strike Aug. 27. Gallow says the strike was called to protest unfair labor practices — violations of the National Labor Relations Act. It’s unlawful to hire permanent replacements in an unfair labor practice strike. On August 30, the National Labor Relations Board found merit to several charges filed by the union, including refusal to bargain in good faith and making unilateral changes to working conditions without the union’s agreement. The charges are scheduled to be go before a federal administrative law judge on Dec. 8.

The strike initially shut down operations at the facility. Gallow said he’s not aware of any members who crossed the picket line. But soon after the strike began, Kapstone brought in replacement workers. Gallow said it was hard to get an accurate count of the strikebreakers, because they came in buses at regular intervals, some of which had few or no workers aboard. Kapstone announced it would use the shutdown as an opportunity to perform maintenance. Then it restarted largest of five paper machines Aug. 31, and a second machine on Sept. 4. Gallow expressed doubts about the quality of the product produced by strikebreakers.

Union members maintained a picket 24-7 outside the plant, and security guards brought in by the company filmed them. Cowlitz County sheriff’s deputies maintained a presence at the mill entrance during shift changes. On Aug. 30, one strikebreaker drove his SUV into a picketer and accelerated. The picketer was taken to a hospital but was unhurt.

Kapstone blamed the union for the conflict, and asked a Cowlitz County Superior Court judge to issue a restraining order. On Sept. 1, Judge Stephen Warning imposed a temporary restraining order imposing a 10 mile-per-hour speed limit on roads leading to the plant. But on Sept. 4, Warning rejected Kapstone’s request for a limit of the number and location of picketers, and instead issued an order saying KapStone would be held accountable for those entering and exiting the Longview mill and the union  for those engaged in striking activity.

The return to work doesn’t mean workers have agreed to the company offer. They still have the right to strike again later. If Kapstone had rejected the return-to-work offer, the strike would have become a lockout, making workers eligible for unemployment benefits. Gallow said he’s not commenting publicly on the union’s strategy in offering to return to work.

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