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Paper mill workers strike over safety issues

The following was distributed by the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers.

UPDATE (Nov. 4): AWPPW Local 422 workers in Usk returned to work this morning at 6 a.m. following a one-day unfair labor practice strike.

USK, Wash. (Nov. 3) — Ponderay Newsprint Company workers who work at a paper mill in Usk went on strike this morning at 7 a.m.  Workers plan to return to the job at 7 a.m. Friday morning.  Workers recently spoke out about their health and safety concerns through a website — Ponderay Workers At Risk — launched last week. Ponderay workers struck earlier this year in March.

Operations Technician James LeBlanc had two of his friends die as a result of workplace injuries at Ponderay paper mill, in 1995 and 2003.  He had a nearly fatal on-the-job accident in 1993 as well.  “I shattered my shoulder and had 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 60% of my body. Doctors said I might not make it.”

LeBlanc is the president of Local 422 of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers (AWPPW) in Usk.  The union has demanded greater labor-management cooperation over health and safety issues during bargaining with management.  “Since I was seriously injured at work myself, I know how important it is that we frontline workers take on the role of watchdogs on health and safety.”

Ponderay worker George Wallis said, “People get burned, objects in their eyes, back injuries. We continue to have accidents and injuries. Management says that safety needs to improve, but until we start working together to address the real causes, we’re not going to be as safe as we should be.”

All paper mills are potentially dangerous places.  Workers at Ponderay make the newsprint, operating machinery that is three stories high, a block long, running at 55 mph.  In addition to the two workers who have died from workplace accidents, Ponderay workers have reported head or eye injuries, hearing loss, burns from caustic agents or welding slag, heat exhaustion and other serious injuries.

The Ponderay strikers are also on strike to protest unfair labor practices.  On October 12, 2011, the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint alleging that Ponderay management has violated federal labor law by threatening to permanently replace employees if they engage in a strike and by bargaining in bad faith by insisting on a contract proposal that interferes with employees’ right to join the union, among other charges.  The complaint allegations are awaiting trial before an NLRB Administrative Law Judge.

Many frontline Ponderay workers have been with the mill since it opened in 1989.  A few years ago, Ponderay workers banded together to have a strong voice on the job by voting to join the AWPPW.  Earlier this year, Ponderay workers went on strike for five days.  A key issue was management’s requirement that workers participate in fire brigade and Emergency Medical Technician teams that historically were voluntary.  Workers said they did not want to fill these risky roles, under duress, without adequate management support.

Ponderay is owned by a partnership including three newspaper companies that use its newsprint: McClatchy, Gannett and MediaNews Corp.  AbitibiBowater Inc., a Canadian forest products company, is the managing partner.

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