COTTONTON, Ala. (WRBL) – Back in October, WestRock union leaders said the paper company began to lock out employees, creating the first labor stoppage in nearly 50 years.
The same issues workers faced then are just as prevalent today.
Workers gathered Saturday outside of the WestRock Mahrt Mill on Alabama Highway 165. They are continuing their efforts towards finding a resolution regarding contract negotiations.
The Russell County paper mill produces coated paper, which is used in consumer packaging. To produce that specialized paper, employees work an uncommon schedule that requires many of them to work all three shifts – day, evening and overnight — during any given month.
The latest meetings between the company and the unions have produced progress, but it comes with sacrifices from both sides.
President of the Maintenance Local at WestRock Mahrt Mill, Les Phillips, says the labor dispute was never about compensation, but rather protecting language in their contract regarding overtime. Employees want protection for working unconventional hours.
“It was about standing for what we believe in, what our culture is, what family is, what our time,” said Phillips. “That’s our most precious commodity. Right? Once it’s gone, that’s it. Right. And honestly, you never know when your time’s up, So every moment counts.”
Three unions affiliated with the United Steelworkers — Local 971, Local 1471 which work with the trees, pulp and front end of the process; and Local 1972, which serves the maintenance workers – represent nearly 465 workers.
Here’s where the negotiations stand as of now, two months after the lockout began.
“It appears to be that there’s some hope on the horizon toward both parties finding a deal that we can live with,” said Phillips.
The agreement between WestRock and its unions expired over a year ago. Extensions have been issued and contract talks have been ongoing, but there is still no new agreement.
“Moving forward, we expect to meet again next week and maybe we can resolve this issue, and everybody go back to work, which is clearly in everybody’s best interests,” said Phillips.
Workers have rallied together every day since the company lockout and have no plans of stopping until a resolution comes about.