Over 500 branch leaders participated in the conference held by IndustriALL Global Union’s North American affiliate the United Steelworkers (USW). The USW represents more than 100,000 paper workers, the biggest unionized workers’ group in the sector worldwide.
The process of setting a bargaining agenda was kicked off in 2003 and since, the USW has succeeded in negotiating master contracts at multiple pulp, paper and paper converting factories of the same company at six different firms. The conference included break-outs of 31 separate company councils in which unionists developed priorities for centralized bargaining. The USW has over 700 separate collective agreements in the sector at those companies and the union firmly believes that the way to build power and leverage in bargaining is to consolidate the pacts into master agreements across entire companies, replacing plant-by-plant bargaining.
USW Executive Vice President Jon Geenen, who heads the sector for the union and also is a Work Group member of IndustriALL’s Pulp and Paper sector, opened the conference by reporting that an early priority in master agreements, successorship language – meaning an employer buying a unionized plant must honour the existing collective bargaining relationship – has saved the USW 15,000 union members over the past two years.
Geenen identified three trends that likely will affect USW Paper Sector bargaining over the next few years: the rise of private equity and private ownership in US mills; a continuing trend of company mergers and consolidations, with an accompanying spin-off and closure of plant assets; and a looming skills shortage across industrial America.
The conference also took a hard look at management operated behaviour-based safety programmes, a process which seriously compromises process safety initiatives that serve as better protectors of workers on the job. Moving testimony on a recent catastrophe inside a US pulp and paper mill also came from USW Local 274 in Sartell, Minnesota.
There, on 28 May, an explosion inside ill-equipped air compression lines at private equity-owned Verso Paper killed one and seriously injured four other workers, including one still on life support. The blast severed water pipes of a fire repellent system, causing a 10-day blaze that wiped out the mill’s warehouse and roll paper inventory. Some 280 workers are still off the job and the future of the mill is in doubt.