Alabama paper mill workers want their lives back—and they’re giving up $30,000 to get it
On the morning of Oct. 1, after a 50-hour voting period, almost 500 union members from three United Steel Workers (USW) locals at WestRock’s Mahrt Mill paper mill in Cottonton, Alabama, voted to reject a second contract offer from the company. The refusal to ratify WestRock’s “last, best, and final” offer came as a result of the company insisting on removing contract language pertaining to what the workers there call “penalties” for long hours. Members resoundingly rejected this contract, even though it included an unheard-of $28,000 ratification bonus—increased from an already staggering offer of $20,000, which workers already rejected on Sept. 21.
The penalties in question include time-and-a-half pay on Sundays (which turns into double time if an employee was already at or above 40 hours for the week), and time-and-a-half pay retroactively applied for one’s whole shift if said shift goes over 16 hours (what’s known as ‘Hog Law’ in the industry).
When workers rejected the first offer, the union sent the required 10-day strike notice to alert the company that, if a contract is not ratified by Thursday, Oct. 6, at 8AM Central Time, they will strike. When WestRock, in turn, made the second offer, it came with a notice that the company would lock the workers out on Thursday if they didn’t accept the contract. Then, the union notified WestRock on Saturday, Oct. 1, that members had voted to reject the contract a second time, prompting the company to reiterate their commitment to a lockout, despite indicating a willingness to meet with the union again on the 3rd and the 4th. These meetings, however, did not happen, and the company has reaffirmed that they are not moving on their latest offer. Instead, members are taking that time to conduct training for the impending lockout.
In a statement to WRBL News, a WestRock company spokesperson said, “The Company’s Final Offer will remain on the table for possible re-vote until [the Thursday deadline]. WestRock believes the Offer to be fair and competitive and is hopeful an agreement can be reached with union membership before the current contract expires.”
Bobby Watson, president of USW Local 971, which represents production workers at Mahrt Mill, told The Real News Network that the company has already “escorted out” and placed on a “non-rehire list” members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) who work for the mill’s electrical contractor for stating that they will not cross the picket line.
Mahrt Mill workers have done the same work for decades under many different owners. The mill opened in December 1966 under Alabama-Georgia Kraft, and was purchased by Mead Corporation in 1988. Mead Corporation merged with WestVaco in 2002 to become MeadWestVaco, then MeadWestVaco merged with RockTenn in 2015 to become WestRock. Throughout all these ownership changes, Mahrt Mill workers have managed to retain the vital contract language regarding penalties paid out by the company for excessive work schedules—the language that WestRock is now attempting to eliminate. Watson, who has been working at the plant since 1995, said previous owners understood how important it was to these workers to have time to themselves, to have time to spend with their families, to go to church, and to just relax. “They appreciated their workers,” he told TRNN. “They were family men.”
WestRock has become, through one consolidation and buyout after another, the second largest packaging company in the United States, behind only International Paper. They employ 50,000 people across 320 manufacturing facilities, design centers, research labs, and sales offices around the world. WestRock’s revenue for 2021 was almost $19 billion, and their gross profit for the same year was $3.43 billion. The CEO of WestRock, David Sewell, received a compensation package of over $21 million in 2021, including a $1.5 million bonus.
The company is currently preparing supervisors, salaried personnel, and contract laborers from across the country to replace locked out workers, or to “scab.” Paper mills are notoriously dangerous jobs that require extensive training, and there is concern among the members that the scab workers will be putting themselves at a high risk. However, from a production standpoint, workers have serious doubts the mill will be able to run as effectively with scabs. When asked if he thought salaried personnel and contract laborers would be able to match their productivity, USW member Mike Davenport, a 40-plus-year paper worker and Mahrt Mill employee since 1993, was adamant: “Hell no.”
Sunday penalty pay, one of the issues at the heart of this dispute, has been long gone at most other paper mills, including all other WestRock mills. Joe Marshall, retired paper mill worker and former president of USW Local 1161, which represented production workers at International Paper’s now-closed Courtland, Alabama, location, said that they gave those provisions up in 1990 for much less. “The ratification bonus for that contract was $6,000… about $3,500 after the tax man got his cut,” Marshall said. According to Marshall, it didn’t take long before workers ended up losing money as a result of taking the deal. He believes Sunday premium pay had become functionally extinct in the paper industry by 1995, but it still hasn’t been entirely eliminated—not yet.
This concessionary precedent is one of WestRock’s main arguments for removing the penalty pay provisions at the Mahrt Mill, but Watson countered that there are still 19 other mills with these provisions. Even if it is true that these provisions have been eliminated in other mills, Watson doesn’t believe that’s a good enough reason for eliminating them for workers at the Mahrt Mill. “[They] are the [ones] running this organization,” Watson said of WestRock. “Just because some other company does something doesn’t mean [they] have to follow suit. What’s the rationale of that?”
WestRock has never negotiated a contract with these workers before. The union’s bargaining team includes Watson and other members of the union, many of whom have lived and worked at the mill for decades. When faced with the union’s determination to keep these protections in the contract for their members, a new member of management’s bargaining team reportedly told the union, “This is our mill.”
The paper industry has long been known for its long hours. Production workers typically work what USW members at Mahrt Mill call the “Reverse Southern Swing Shift”: They work seven days in a row on a “graveyard” shift (from midnight to 8am), then they get one day off before working another seven days in a row, this time on the “evening” shift (from 4pm to midnight); then they get one day off before beginning another seven-day stretch on the day shift (from 8am to 3pm). After that, workers get four days off before they start the cycle over again. Marshall said they worked the same schedule at his mill in Courtland under Champion Paper until 1993.
Since WestRock took over the Mahrt Mill, these already-long hours have been stretched even more. Watson told TRNN that the eight-hour shifts are commonly stretched to 12 hours, 16 hours, and beyond. Employees are told to come into work on the few days off they have. Allen Rogers, president of USW Local 1877, representing maintenance staff at WestRock’s Florence, South Carolina, mill, said that paper mills commonly operate with approximately 18-22% of the total hours worked coming from overtime. At Mahrt Mill, Watson told TRNN, that number is 40%. Ronald Robinette, a three-year employee at Mahrt Mill, said that he and his coworkers “very often” have to work more than eight hours a day, or come in on their off days.
Workers have said that it feels like a “spit in the face” to be told that their sacrifices to keep production going aren’t valued like they used to be. Watson emphasized that the Hog Law shouldn’t even be operable because they shouldn’t be working people more than 16 hours anyways, and that language is in the contract as a deterrent to protect workers. “All this language that they’re wanting to buy, or now force people to lose, is all under their control. They’re the master, they control the workforce, they hire and fire, so if you would properly staff your mills and your locations, this language wouldn’t be a problem,” Watson said. “Why are you wanting to eliminate [it]? It’s a penalty there to protect us from your abuse.”
Watson told TRNN that even though no one in the international union leadership expected them to reject the offer—and especially not for a second time—he expects to get the “full weight” of the international union’s support during the lockout. “A lot of folks underestimated us, and I think now they’re taking us seriously,” he said.
USW members at other WestRock locations are also taking notice. USW Locals 1877, 1879, and 674, which collectively represent 300 workers at the Florence WestRock mill in South Carolina, sent a letter of support to their fellow workers as soon as the strike authorization vote was announced. They expressed their support and solidarity with the workers at Mahrt Mill, calling on WestRock to “negotiate in good faith with these working men and women in order to achieve a fair contract.” Allen Rogers, president of the USW Local 1877, representing maintenance workers at the Florence location, said that “if we’re going to fight, now is the time.”
WestRock workers in Stevenson, Alabama, and Fernandina Beach, Florida, are also in the midst of local contract negotiations now and will be holding a strike authorization vote on Thursday, Oct. 6—the same day that the Mahrt Mill lockout is scheduled to take place. WestRock workers in Florence, South Carolina, are also meeting this week to discuss scheduling their own strike authorization vote. Officers from these and other union locals have told Watson that they are watching the situation in Cottonton closely and that they support him and his coworkers at Mahrt Mill.