COTTONTON, Ala. (WRBL) — An anticipated work stoppage at an East Alabama paper mill is underway, a union leader tells WRBL Thursday morning.

Workers were gathering outside the Westrock mill on Alabama Highway 165 before 8 a.m. Russell County Sheriff’s deputies and private security were also on hand.

“The company has initiated an illegal lockout,” said Bobby Watson, president of Local 971, which is affiliated with the United Steelworkers Union. “Their goal is to keep us out of this mill and starve us out. And continue to hold us out of this facility. And force this concessionary contract on the employees.”

WRBL reached out to a WestRock spokesperson in Atlanta Thursday morning and is awaiting a response. The company previously said if there was a work stoppage the mill would continue to operate with non-union labor.

The Local 971 and two other West Rock Unions — Local 1471 and Local 1972 — represent about 465 workers.

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.

Watson said talks with the company were held late Wednesday afternoon, but produced no progress.

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 that has to do with overtime and pay to protect them for working these unconventional hours.

The company has offered a one-time payout t each union employee and raises over the next two years. The union has rejected those offers. The most recent vote was less than a week ago and Watson says the union voted about 90 percent against that offer.

Here is what union leaders and the company said earlier this week as the work stoppage loomed.