‘Work-Life Balance Is at the Center of This Dispute’: Alabama Westrock Paper Mill Workers Fight On

Workers at Westrock’s Mahrt Mall paper mill in Cottonton, Alabama, have been locked out since the beginning of October due to an ongoing contract fight.

Jacob Morrison

Forklift picking up a roll of paper. Photo via Getty Images

On the morning of Oct. 1… 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,” Jacob Morrison recently reported for The Real News Network. 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.” 

Workers at WestRock’s Mahrt Mill paper mill have been locked out by the company since early October and say they can’t be bought off with bonuses for signing a contract that will ensure they have even less time for life outside of work. In this special guest-hosted episode, Morrison speaks with Mahrt Mill workers from the picket line about the lockout and their fight to get their lives back.

Prefer to read? A full transcript of this episode is available below.

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Jacob Morrison: All right. Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.

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I’m co-host of the Valley Labor Report, Alabama’s only union talk radio program, and I am in the driver’s seat for this episode, bringing you some conversations that I had with five workers from Alabama who are locked out by their employer, the WestRock Paper Mill in Cottonton, Alabama. Something that’s a running theme, it seems like, in so many of these struggles against bosses that workers are fighting across the country is time. Time away from work, time with your children, time with your friends, family, and loved ones. The fight for an eight-hour day was literally a bloody one. And ever since that loss, bosses have been trying to take, and take, and take more of our time. And the same thing has happened to these workers at the Mahrt Mill here in Alabama.

The paper industry has already long been plagued with absurd hours. These workers and many others today and through the last several decades at paper mills across the country work what they call a reverse Southern swing shift”. They work seven days in a row, first from midnight to 8:00 AM, then they get one day off before they work another seven days in a row. This time on an evening shift from 4:00 PM to midnight. They get another day off before working a third round of a seven day week, this time on a day shift, from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Then they get four days off before they start the cycle over again.

Unlike so many other paper mill workers, these folks have been able to retain a penalty for these seven day work weeks in the form of the Sunday premium. Any work performed on a Sunday is paid at time and a half at the mill, double time if they are already over 40 for the week. One of the workers said that this is important language to retain because a penalty should be paid when you work somebody seven days without a day of rest.

And I think that’s obvious, but WestRock disagrees. They want to take this from them despite, like so many other corporations, bragging about record profits; they gave their CEO a 300% raise in the last year. Their profits are over $3 billion. These workers also have another protection the company wants to take away, something that the workers call Hog Law, which states that if a shift goes over 16 hours, then the employee is paid time and a half back to the first hour. This is meant to dis-incentivize the company from 16 hour shifts, and the company is only offering a two-point-some-odd% raise annually.

So the workers voted down this proposal by the company twice despite an unheard of $28,000 buyout in the contract because, as the workers told me, it’s not about the money, it’s about time. In addition to the already insane paper mill schedules that I just told you about, the reverse Southern swing shift where they always have to work seven day weeks, these workers are routinely held over their eight-hour shifts and they’re turned into 12-hour shifts, 16-hour shifts, 24-hour shifts. 40% of the hours worked in this mill are overtime.

And that’s with these penalties for excessive work on Sundays and after 16 hours. What would the company do without them? And that’s precisely what the company wants to do. They want to take these penalties for excessive work out of the contract and they want to work these people more. So after the workers rejected the offer a second time, the company locked them out. I spent a couple days on the picket line with them, talking to them, letting them tell me why this fight for their time is so important. These are their stories.

Deborah Berry: My name is Deborah Berry. I worked in quality assurance here at the mill. I’m from the local 1471, and I’ve been here 34 years.

DaWanda Denmark: DaWanda Denmark. I’ve been here for 18 years, and I’m a local of 1471 as well. And I work inside the pulp mill.

Jacob Morrison: So what was it like when you started working here 34 years ago? What job were you doing, and what was the atmosphere like on the shop floor?

Deborah Berry: Basically, I’ve been in quality assurance my whole time here. We had a different probationary period of working on the same kind of thing for 30 days. After that, I’ve been in quality assurance. When I came here, the atmosphere was scary, but it was such a family-oriented place to work. Of course, we had different leadership, and throughout the years we’ve had different companies buy Mead; Alabama, Kraft, Mead, Westvaco, and WestRock.

I’ve seen some good, some bad, and some ugly, but at least beforehand the company was fair. They at least cared about us and our family, the community, they were supportive, they were easy to work with. This is the first time that we’ve ever really had to strike, because we would come to some kind of agreement that worked best for the company and the workers. And now we are all in a position with this lockout that we don’t want to be in.

We’d rather be working than out here protesting, but it’s a must that we do. They’re trying to steal the contract language that has governed each local since its existence. And to do that uncalled for with the profits and the gains that we provided, the sacrifices that we’ve made for this company, is absurd. And it is just horrible. We don’t want a whole lot, but we want what we have. We don’t want to have to come out here and work long, long hours, 16, more hours, every holiday, every weekend, and not get compensated for it. Because we never can go back to get the time that we’ve lost with our family and with our life. But at least we can make a better living for them. We can contribute to the community. And so this is within itself. It has a very bad look on the company because we earned it. We deserved it.

DaWanda Denmark: For me, 18 years ago when I first came here, this was a very good place to work because I actually applied to this place seven years before I even got hired. It did give me a wonderful living to be able to provide for my family and my kids. But since I’ve been here over the change of time, it has changed the way, it has gotten worse. Where every turnaround is contract time, they want to take something away. And to go back and elaborate on what Ms. Berry said is that for me to sit here and miss Christmas and Thanksgiving and 4th of July and events with my family and my children, I could not get that back. But at least when I came here I was compensated to the point that if I needed to do something for my family, I was able to do that. And now to be able to sit here and they want to take that away from me, it’s just not possible.

It’s just not possible for me, and that’s not what I want for myself nor my family. And to be able to come out here and work and know that you’re getting paid for what you’re doing sometimes is not just completely worth it, but it makes it a little bit better, because every single week we rotate. You get seven days off a month. Sometimes. That’s if somebody else is not on 12 hours and haven’t put you on seven 12. And for somebody to call out of work, and you sit here and not get compensated for what you need to because you are being forced to stay here, I think that’s totally wrong.

And I think they just really need to go back and evaluate what people out here are losing and what they do to make the world go around. I said, it’s not just us, it’s actually for truck drivers around here that are coming in and out of this mill. That’s how they take care of their family as well. And I just don’t think they’re taking that into consideration. We’re not asking for anything. We just want to be left alone and just be treated fairly.

Jacob Morrison: The thing about the Hog Law that Bobby and Les and everybody that I’ve talked to have tried to emphasize is that that’s kind of a protection against using y’all for more than 16 hours.

Deborah Berry: Exactly.

Jacob Morrison: And they’re wanting to take that away even though they’re already using y’all 12, 16, and over 16 hours sometimes. How worried are y’all two about what they would do if this protection for y’all is taken away?

Deborah Berry: If you don’t have traffic signs, you have everybody out there going a hundred miles per hour. If we don’t have our language protection and we don’t have clauses in there, like the situation we are in now, it’s obvious we can’t trust them. And so you want to have everything in writing and in black and white for this very reason, so that you already got the contract language there, so you could work with a decent amount of hours. And if you are forced to work those other hours, you still have some kind of protection against it. But contract language is necessary. It is a must that we keep for our protection.

DaWanda Denmark: I feel that if we lose that then it actually harms us more than it helps us because of the simple fact of, you put people in danger when you leave here. Sometimes we work 16 hours, and we have worked over 16 hours to try to make something, but if it becomes to the point where that language is gone, they can use it to their advantage. It puts you in danger on this highway, when you’re traveling up inside this highway trying to get back and forth home. It puts other people’s lives in danger as well. So that language needs to stay because it protects us and it protects other individuals that are innocent that are out here on the highway. So my thing is it needs to stay.

Les Phillips: I’m Les Phillips. I represent a maintenance local, the smallest of the three at the Mahrt Mill, that’s local 1972. I’ve been there… August was my eighth year, the beginning of my eighth year. Give a little bit of history. I worked at another paper mill in Tennessee for eight years. Cleveland, Tennessee. It was an old Bowater facility that also is represented by USW. When I came to this facility, I saw a lot of division within our maintenance local, and I saw some problems with the company. But then within months of getting here, I was here for a bargaining cycle, which went long, and it was frustrating to a lot of people.

But ultimately, a week in that transition of that bargaining cycle, we were also bought by RockTenn. And as the ink was still drying on the contract, it was said across the table, you guys are lucky this time that you didn’t have to deal with RockTenn, but next time you will. There was a major source of contention about premium pay then, and the idea was RockTenn would be a lot harder to deal with. So the idea was, get ready, this fight’s coming.

So that kind of resonated in me and several others at our facility, and time and space rocked on. Then I get involved in the union, a series of events take place, and I end up president. And for the most part, things just rocked along. About 2019 came along, and the idea of us entering into a master agreement started being, our people were being prompted to buy into that idea. What little bit we knew about it? We didn’t want any part of it, just basically because of the way that it’s composed.

They had about 40 converter facilities and about 23 mills at that time. We didn’t like the idea of being attached to those converting facilities for a number of reasons, really. It’s not similar, because we all work with paper, but a very different atmosphere when you go to a converter facility versus a mill. A lot more resources, a lot more chemicals, this dangerous environment altogether. So we caught onto the idea that being part of that master was also premium pay going away, and pyramiding overtime no longer existing in contract. So that even further led to our people’s dissatisfaction and resistance concerning the idea.

So we had another vote on the same point, and that really was maybe the starting place where people started getting it, universally at our facility, what this fight was going to be about and how bad it was going to impact us should we choose to go down that road. And ever since then there’s been a gradual increase of unity and solidarity trying to take shape at our facility despite some challenges. There’s been challenges to try to stop that, but it’s happened anyway. This bargaining cycle that started at the end of March has really inspired our people to become united and lay aside all those things that were dividing us and push toward a common goal. So on that front alone, I would consider it miraculous that 500 people in today’s world agree on anything.

It’s impactful when you see people that you know have had trouble dealing with each other anytime they’re around each other, and you see them with their arms around each other and supporting each other. So just from an inspiration standpoint, that really impacts me right here, right in the heart.

This bargaining cycle really does fundamentally come down to one question, and it’s the question that I asked the company the last time at the table. I said, Tony, how do I convince my people that this is a good deal, a fair deal, a deal they should be excited about and encouraged to get on board with, to sign their names on? How do I do that with respect to the knowledge that water is floating around at the top of this organization like water?

And you want to take from our members more money and work them the same, if not more, hours for less. And you want to put it in the pockets of people that – I’m just going to say it like it is – That we don’t believe needs it. How do I pitch that sale to them? Because I’m going to be honest with you, at the end of the day, that’s the hurdle that we have in front of us, and it’s 40 feet high, and I don’t have jumping legs. How do I get across that?

And he sat there a minute and he just kind of nodded his head and he said, Les, you make your point as clear as ever. I don’t know, I don’t have a good answer for that. But what I can tell you is WestRock sees Sunday as just another day of the week, and I have marching orders. This is going to happen one way or another. And he asked me the same question, but he spun it. He said… Make sure I’m wording it right… How is the union going to come up with a clever idea to get us out of this problem that we have in front of us?

And I responded with, I don’t know what you’re making the problem, but from our eyes, you’ve brought this fight to us. We make you a lot of money. There’s no justification, there’s no reason for what you’re asking of us, other than we think we can and we’re going to take it. So when you ask us what we’re going to do to cleverly get around this, it seems like, to me, that we both have an equal responsibility to become clever. Or maybe I would use the word reasonable”, and figure out all the reasons to not have this fight. But it seems that the people above you are determined to take. And I’m going to tell you, historically, our people’s looking back across the last four or five contracts, they’re not willing to let you take anymore. So that’s where we’re at.

And of course that conversation dwindled off and it became, well, it’s clear that we’re not going to have anything fruitful here today. So all that being said, our people are going to march forward. They believe in what we’re standing for. It’s reasonable. It’s right.

People can make this about money all they want to. But ultimately, if it was about money that it took the bribe that was offered to them on the last deal. I don’t know how you get around that, right? If it was about greed and it was about money – Which they thought it was or they wouldn’t have put that on the offer anyway, right? They thought they could entice us and that greed would just take its natural course. That’s not what happened. These folks believe in what the stand that we’re taking that Sunday really does mean something. Not just economically, but ultimately culturally. That’s a day for worship, that’s a day to spend time with your family, a day of rest.

I don’t know how you get around that. Corporate America has seen fit to get around that. But our message to corporate America, especially the folks at WestRock, is we’re going to stand up and we’re going to fight because we see it differently. I am a man of faith. I hold Sunday in high regard. I believe that I am not just a godly man, but I would go a step further and I would say that when I read His word, He’s going to hold me accountable as the spiritual leader of my home. And everything that I do and everything I don’t do sends a message to my family. I want my children to understand that I fought and I stood up for solid principles that were based on God’s word. And I’m going to be unmovable in that. Where else would you like to go?

Jacob Morrison: You mentioned that the fight was not about money and that Sunday, it’s not just another day for so many of these folks. And one of the other things that y’all are pushing back on is them trying to take Hog Law from your contract. Is that right?

Les Phillips: So outside of the language that specifies what premium pay is and isn’t, there’s also language in there for pyramiding overtime. And essentially, if I was to sum it up in its most condensed form, it basically addresses when you work a man past 16 hours – Not work a man 16 hours, work him past 16 – How unreasonable is that from a safety standpoint, anyway? Let me go on. If you work a man, not 24 hours, past 24 hours, there’s going to be penalties in both of those cases. Now, on top of that, if you work a man on Sunday, if you work a man on a holiday, and then that time, the overtime that he works doesn’t offset time that would’ve been working for overtime when he later on gets scheduled that weekend. That overtime still applies, right?

These folks sacrifice their entire lives to be here. Most families end up having trouble with kids, or divorces, or both, based on the schedules that these folks live. They basically end up being suppliers for their family and monetary means, but never there physically. Never there spiritually, never there emotionally, not enough to make a big impact that this life doesn’t affect their family unit, the things that matter.

One of the guys that came through in one of our voting sessions made the comment, I was told when I came here I was going to sacrifice time from my family. I was going to sacrifice ball games. I was going to sacrifice Christmas and maybe Easter and maybe weddings, things that I really should be at, but I’m going to be compensated for it. And now here they are. They’re trying to take that away, too. So that really does resonate with a lot of people when you put it in those terms. This is the reason I came here. I recognized up front I was going to be making a sacrifice.

So it’s really challenging all the way around. These people stepped forward and said, I agree, this is the way I see fit best, to be the provider for my home. Maybe my wife doesn’t need to work at all and I can make enough overtime opportunities that she can spend that much needed time with the kids while they’re developing. Where you’re not at other venues, where they’re being influenced and raised by other people. That’s important and not to be understated. Really, work-life balance is at the center of this dispute. I would have a hard time anybody trying to paint it any other way.

Jacob Morrison: Yeah, I think that’s about it. We’re right at 15 minutes, so I appreciate your time, brother.

Les Phillips: All right. Appreciate it. Thank you for coming and spending your time with us. It really does mean a lot to all of our membership. In all fairness, you guys have cast the best light and did the best coverage from our perspective of anybody else that’s dealt with us, and we appreciate it.

Clayton Adams: My name’s Clayton Adams. I’ve been working at Mahrt Mill for 34 years. I’m 58 years old. A second-generation paper worker. Paper mill worker. My dad worked out there from 66 till… Let’s see, I don’t know. He retired when he was 68, about eight years ago probably, I think. But I worked with, I’m in the local 1471, the production local.

Anthony Streeter: My name is Anthony Streeter. Been working out here, been working at the mill for 28 years, working chemical recovery… And basically that’s it.

Clayton Adams: 1471.

Anthony Streeter: Oh well, local 1471.

Jacob Morrison: And did both of y’all grow up around here? Both of y’all from the Cottonton, Columbus area?

Anthony Streeter: Well, me and him are both from the Eufaula area. We both went to high school together.

Jacob Morrison: Yeah. Oh, no kidding.

Anthony Streeter: Matter of fact, we grew up together.

Jacob Morrison: What high school did y’all go to?

Anthony Streeter: Went to Eufaula High School.

Jacob Morrison: Yeah. Y’all graduate the same year, even?

Anthony Streeter: No, he graduated a year before I did. He graduated in 82 and I graduated in 83.

Jacob Morrison: Oh well hey that’s interesting.

Clayton Adams: Played sports together.

Anthony Streeter: Played sports together.

Jacob Morrison: Well, who was better?

Anthony Streeter: Well, he was more on the basketball side, so I was all round. See I played football, basketball, so…

Jacob Morrison: So you were better.

Clayton Adams: I was the better white guy playing.

Anthony Streeter: Yeah.

Jacob Morrison: Yeah. Well I played sports when I was in high school, but I was on the cross country team so it’s not very…

Anthony Streeter: So you like to run?

Jacob Morrison: Oh, I used to. Yeah. It’s been a long time. I’ve been long out of shape. So you mentioned that you’re a second-generation paper mill worker. Your daddy worked here. How long did he work at the mill again?

Clayton Adams: I’m trying to think. He left when he was 68 and he came in 66, but he was 68 years old when he retired. I’m trying to think how many years it was. It was 40-something years. I can’t remember the exact year when he retired, but it’s about eight years ago. Eight to 10 at the most. I’m 58, so he’s 78 now. So he, it’s been 10 years he’s been retired.

Jacob Morrison: And all 48 years were at the Mahrt Mill?

Clayton Adams: Yeah, he worked on the paper machine. Okay. He was a top out. He was [inaudible] guy on the paper machine. He had the highest job, the machine tender on the paper machine.

Jacob Morrison: What do you remember growing up with your daddy working at the paper mill?

Clayton Adams: Not seeing him a whole lot.

Jacob Morrison: Was they working that reverse Southern swing back then?

Clayton Adams: Same shift then. Yeah.

Jacob Morrison: Explain to folks what y’all call the reverse Southern swing. What is that?

Clayton Adams: Well, I always say, I mean you work seven days at a time on whichever shift y’all on. We work seven midnights, we’re off two days. We work seven evenings, we’re off one day. We work seven days, then we have our four days off for a long weekend.

Anthony Streeter: So basically, you’re still getting your eight days a week off, I mean eight days a month off, but it’s just at different times of the week. You know, got two days here, one day here, and then you got your other five days on the back end on your first shift.

Clayton Adams: But one week off a month.

Anthony Streeter: So you only get one weekend a month.

Jacob Morrison: Right, right.

Anthony Streeter: But your days off, it’s like if you were working like a regular shift from a 40-hour week, you’re still getting your eight days to weekend, you get Saturday and Sunday off. But with the Southern swing, it’s like you’re getting two days in the middle of the week, one day at the end of the week, and then you get your long weekend where you get the rest of your days off.

Clayton Adams: And my parents divorced probably when I was 12 or 13. So you’re not going to find many people that work out there that haven’t been divorced. I haven’t. I’ve been there 34 years and I haven’t. But it takes a good woman to work through shift work. She can tell you that. It’s just hard. They put a strain on your [inaudible].

Jacob Morrison: So did your dad, was he divorced before he married your mom and had you, or was it your parents got divorced?

Clayton Adams: No. No. That was their first marriage. Yeah. But they did get a divorce.

Jacob Morrison: And so y’all both mentioned that you played sports in high school, and so was your dad able to see you very much?

Clayton Adams: No, not a lot. And then most of it was, I tried… I mean I was in middle school when they divorced, so after that, hardly he wasn’t around much.

Jacob Morrison: Right. How did your dad… [traffic noise] I was waiting for that truck to pass. How did your dad think about his work at the paper mill? Talking to folks, there’s some conflicting feelings. There’s like, I’m really proud of the work that I do. I do good work and we put out a lot of product and I feel really good about that. And then there’s also being here all the time, having to work this swing shift is really difficult on my family life. What do you think your dad’s thought’s – ?

Clayton Adams: My dad never complained. You’ll hear me, I’ll complain. Every set of midnights I get on, you’ll hear me complain. I hate these midnights.

Speaker: …We got a truckload of water, if you could just unload it…

Jacob Morrison: All right. So yeah, we stopped to help unload a big old truckload, a literal truckload. The guy said it’s a truckload and I think we were all like, oh, maybe it’s not quite a truck, but it was an actual truck bed load of water donated from the Eufaula tractor supply. So that’s pretty cool to see that.

And you were talking about your parents, your daddy was a paper mill worker.

Clayton Adams: Yes. And you were asking… He never complained about the work, and he never missed work, and he was always there. But yeah, I mean I didn’t see a lot of them as far as after they had divorced, family stuff and all. But now I got three kids myself. I got a son and two daughters, and of course my son was talking about being a third generation at the paper mill. But I’ve sent him the other way just because of how hard it is on the shift work part of it. I mean you make all the money you want, but it’s just hard. It’s hard on the family. So anyway, he works at the power company now.

Jacob Morrison: He works at the fire department?

Clayton Adams: No, the power company. Alabama Power.

Jacob Morrison: The power company. Alabama Power. Okay.

Clayton Adams: So I sent him the other way. And I got a son-in-law that was out here, and he went to the power company too. Just, it’s tough. It’s really tough raising a family. And I worked with a bunch of great guys and they had kids, so we did a lot of swapping, where I could be at my kids’ stuff and they could be at their kids’ stuff. But it was just whether we used work in somebody’s midnights or whatever, I’d done a lot of swapping. I had a bunch of great guys I worked with that helped us, that swapped where we could be off for our family stuff.

Jacob Morrison: So do you feel like because you were able to swap with folks, maybe you were able to be a little bit more present in your kid’s life than maybe your dad was?

Clayton Adams: A lot more.

Jacob Morrison: A lot more. But it was pretty hard?

Clayton Adams: Oh yeah. But of course the younger you are, the easier it is. But the older you get, of course… All that swapping and doubling to be off. But that’s what you have to do. That’s what you do.

Jacob Morrison: And recently y’all have been having to work even more than the regular seven eights.

Clayton Adams: Oh, yeah. Because they’re understaffed. They don’t have people trained.

Anthony Streeter: They are not training enough people to… Plus, back when we were coming up, it was hard for us to get on out here. It was probably easier for him than me, but it was hard for us to get on out here to work. Now they can’t hire people to come out here to work cause they’re not paying them. They’re not paying them enough and people don’t want to.

Jacob Morrison: Well, I imagine you got to pay people a good bit of money to make them go through these seven-day week shifts.

Anthony Streeter: You’re right. But the thing about it is that, back when we were coming up, it was so hard for us to get on. Now once we got on and got used to the environment and stuff like that, you know work your way on up. But I mean, they were paying us then, but now they’re not paying these younger guys that are coming in.

Clayton Adams: These would be the premium top paying jobs out here. But everybody else has come up and caught us. The 2% raises, 2.5% raises over the years and years and years. Other people, they just are not going to work that shift work, these new folks ain’t going to do it for… So the money, and then they’re talking about taking your money now.

Jacob Morrison: Right? Well, and I seen…

Clayton Adams: I’ve never had a good job. I’ve had a good-paying job. Right. That’s my whole slogan. I’ve never had a good job. It was just a good-paying job. That’s the reason I did it. That’s the reason that works, was the money.

Jacob Morrison: Well and just to kind of back up what y’all are saying about they can’t keep new folks. I saw that the average employee at WestRock, at this Mahrt Mill, has been there 20 years. That is, I don’t think, common. Usually you’ve got more new people than that. And just from myself anecdotally, being on the picket line yesterday and today, almost everybody I talked to: Yeah I’ve been here 10 years. Yeah I’ve been here 15, 20, 30, 40 years. There’s been only a handful of folks that I’ve talked to that’ve been here five years or less.

Clayton Adams: If we succeed in keeping our language and keeping our pay, we’re doing them a favor with hiring. Cause you already can’t hire, now you’re talking about cutting what they’re already making. They’re not going to do it. There are people leaving to go back to the chicken plant. I mean, like Anthony said, it’s unheard of. You had to wait years to get a job. Now they done dropped the standards. They’re giving their own tests. You don’t even have to have a GED. I mean you just need a GED; You don’t need a high school diploma. And they’re dropping their standards and they still can’t keep people to work out there, because it’s how tough it is. They just ain’t going to do it.

Jacob Morrison: So your parents didn’t work at the paper mill? What was it like for you trying to get on?

Anthony Streeter: Well when I first got out of high school, I went to a couple years of college and then I went to the military. So after I got out of the military I knew the human resource manager out here because when I was young he coached me in baseball. So as I was transitioning from the army to come back home, I got in touch with him. So that’s how I ended up getting on out here. So back then it ain’t the employment was, it ain’t what it’s who you know, you see what I’m saying?

Clayton Adams: Coming out of service, it’s always been, they’ve hired them people pretty quick. They always hired people out of service.

Anthony Streeter: So when I came out here, like I say, I don’t work my way up basically almost to the top of my job class right now. But anyway, by working out of here, I had, just like everybody else, you had to start from the bottom. But at the time when you were transitioning, the pay was, I mean, it was fine, because that’s what we were looking for. But now this day and time with these young kids that are coming out now, getting out of maybe high school, they might get out of college and know they are trying to get on out here and they find out how we’re getting paid, how we’re working. They’re like Uh-huh (negative). I’m not…

Clayton Adams: I’ve seen more quit this past year than… It’s unheard of. Just come out here and not make the 90 days, and leave and go back to where they were at, or just wasn’t working.

Anthony Streeter: It. They ain’t going to work it.

Jacob Morrison: Have you got any kids?

Anthony Streeter: Yes, both of my kids are grown. I got one… Matter of fact, my daughter is staying in Eufaula, and my son, he’s staying in Atlanta.

Jacob Morrison: Okay. Yeah. And what were you able to work around like he was to try to be there when they had games or…?

Anthony Streeter: Well I’m just like him. You just had to make time. If you’re not off, especially with my son, by him playing ball and stuff like that, you know you have to swap out with other people in order to make time in order to go see him play ball or whatever. So that was all part of it. So it is hard. It’s hard.

Clayton Adams: I said that as my parents, my daddy or whatever, neither one was around a lot. But that’s a generational thing. Older generation, they wouldn’t spend as much time like people do with their kids now.

Jacob Morrison: Well so I think we’re getting a good foundation under us for folks who aren’t familiar with this kind of work to start to understand what’s going on. And so this Mahrt Mill became WestRock. WestRock took over in 2015. And my understanding is that there have been a lot of changes since WestRock took over.

Anthony Streeter: The reason is it was Westvaco, then we got with RockTenn, which became WestRock. So the RockTenn mentality was way different from what Westvaco and Mead brought to the tape. So once they took over, everything changed. Everything changed because of RockTenn. So by it being like I say, when it first started out, I’ve been through this, the third name change I went through, from Mead to Westvaco to WestRock. So like I say, once they took over, everything started to change.

Jacob Morrison: What were some of the changes that you were able to see from the shop floor, so to speak?

Anthony Streeter: The changes were, I mean just, like training. A lot of training, you got a lot of people that have been out here, like you say, 20, 30, 40 years, they’re retiring. They’re not filling jobs like they’re supposed to. The staffing is not like it’s supposed to be. Plus, like I say, the training, you got to train people in order to move them up to the next level. And you have to hire somebody in order to train people. The training, like I say, the hiring is, to me, it’s poor, real poor. So instead of us working all these hours to fill the job, we got to work 12, 16 hours in order to fill the job.

Jacob Morrison: Do you have an idea of how y’all are having to work even beyond… The normal is seven eights, and then you’re off and then seven eights, but y’all are routinely having to work 12, 16 maybe more. Do you have an idea of how often it is that you are having to work beyond your eight hour shift?

Clayton Adams: I can tell you on me, I’m a crew leader. I’m at the top of our line, and we got four people in that job class, and they get six weeks vacation a year. Every vacation they’re on, there’s four jobs times six. That’s besides for some other reason, just company reasons we don’t shutdown or something. They put you on 12 hours. But those 24 weeks are guaranteed. When they’re out, you’re on 12 hours. Because they never set up. Used to, like Anthony said, before we stayed trained for a job or two jobs, everybody did, ahead. So if somebody was out, You set up and you fill vacancies that way. You had experts on the bottom. That don’t happen. Now if you, somebody’s asked you for 12 hours. Two people’s out, you’re on seven 12s, you don’t even get a day off. That happens all the time.

Anthony Streeter: So just like you say, back in the day when people set up, when people go on vacation or something, that next man that’s in line, see he can set up in that job. He gets paid for it. He can set up in that job where they won’t keep the people on for 12 hours. You see what I’m saying?

Clayton Adams: Save them money. Person on the bottom and then everybody set up.

Jacob Morrison: And what y’all are saying, what y’all are saying set up” is where you’ve got these different job classifications and what it means to be set up is that, okay, I’m in level one, I’m being also trained while I’m working a level one job, let’s say, to be able to perform the level two job. And so when a level two person has to leave or goes on vacation or something, instead of increasing the hours of the other level twos, I’m able to pull up for a week or for two weeks and work a level two, and then I’ll go back down to level one.

Clayton Adams: Right. When they come back the next week you would set down, but you would set up. The jobs are a line of progression. You just set the hole up to where the vacancy was, you’d set up and cover it.

Jacob Morrison: So why aren’t they doing that anymore?

Anthony Streeter: Cause ain’t got nobody, they’re not training. Ain’t got enough people to train.

Clayton Adams: They got behind on hiring. I mean way behind. Nobody had anybody extra to train. And then now that when they do get them now, they’re leaving so fast, by the time you get one trained he might be out and go to another department. They just don’t have enough people to staff and train to set up and take care of the vacancies.

Jacob Morrison: And y’all had to work all through the pandemic, right? A lot of us, for me, for instance, I worked from home for a solid 18 months. It was like a year and a half from when the pandemic started to when I was back in the office. But y’all had to be there the whole time.

Anthony Streeter: Right. Because they considered us as an essential plant, to be making what we make. Even though, just like I tell everybody else, even though they got paid from the government, you know what I’m saying? Because we worked through the pandemic. I mean they only gave us throughout a couple years, we got one check. One check.

Clayton Adams: No telling how many they got. We were essential until this contract time, and now we’re not essential.

Anthony Streeter: And now we’re not essential.

Jacob Morrison: So did it get even worse during the pandemic as far as not being able to hire people, not being able to train people?

Clayton Adams: Oh yeah.

Anthony Streeter: Oh yeah. I mean just you know had people that were out with COVID, you still had to cover their jobs. That put more strain on people with 12 and 16 hours, sometimes 24, according to the part of the week that it falls on.

Clayton Adams: I’ve been made to stay – You’re talking about the shortages with the pandemic – Like five jobs below me, I’ve been made to stay and work that job. Forced to stay. There’s nobody there. Can’t get anybody. You’ve got to work at five jobs below me. I’m top. I’m the crew leader.

Jacob Morrison: Right. What’s the longest shift that you would say you’ve worked in the last few years?

Clayton Adams: I’m not working over 16 hours.

Jacob Morrison: Oh. You just…

Clayton Adams: When you get 16 hours I get my [inaudible], I’m going to bed.

Anthony Streeter: The most I have is 18 hours. I definitely [inaudible].

Jacob Morrison: Right.

Anthony Streeter: But I did 18 hours. That’s the most I’ve ever done.

Jacob Morrison: My understanding is that y’all have had a few that people die from COVID, from an outbreak at the plant. Is that right? Did y’all know any of the people that passed away?

Clayton Adams: I knew the guy, the Ward guy, I knew him just in passing and talking to him over the years, in the wood yard. I don’t know who else. Mike Ward was who it was.

Anthony Streeter: Yeah. Matter of fact his son worked in my department.

Clayton Adams: Really? I didn’t know that.

Jacob Morrison: And so coming through the pandemic, y’all granted an extension to the company to say, okay these are extenuating circumstances for contract negotiations. We will hold off for a little while, and now y’all just wrapped up contract negotiations and they locked you out because they want to take stuff from you.

Anthony Streeter: Well, really, last year was the end of our contract, and right at the end of our contract, we were in shutdown. Well, we were going into shutdown, let’s say it like that. We were going into shutdown. So during that, at that time, that’s when they asked for, can we get an extension? Because they wanted to get this shutdown over with, and the pandemic going through at the same time. You see what I’m saying? So all this stuff, boom, at one time.

Jacob Morrison: And now a shutdown for folks. That’s plant term, that’s mill terminology for… Explain what a shutdown is.

Anthony Streeter: It’s for maintenance, the upgrading of all machinery, maintenance on machines, and putting in new stuff, taking out old stuff.

Jacob Morrison: And so that’s not like a pandemic-related shutdown. This is a routine thing.

Anthony Streeter: This is a routine.

Clayton Adams: Usually a week or two weeks. You have outages all the time where certain departments would be down a day or two. But usually a shutdown is going to end up shutting the whole mills down [inaudible] cold days and nothing. And some days, some parts will be running in dock, but it’s usually a couple of weeks. And then the Anthony’s department, they get in long shutdowns longer than ours when they are working on borders and stuff.

Anthony Streeter: Right. So they asked us to give an extension to help them out. Whereas I felt like we had them, if we wouldn’t have never given them the extension to go ahead with negotiation. Well, they asked for an extension. So the extension went on up until now, back until they started back in March, when they started back negotiating.

Clayton Adams: But now they were just trying to get through this shutdown. They got a shutdown coming up now they were trying to get past it, too.

Anthony Streeter: But we told them, no, no we’re not going to go through it two times. We’re not going to do it two times.

Jacob Morrison: So how does it feel, you were actually part of the folks who were locked out. You were in the last shift before the lockout. Walk us through that as it was happening.

Anthony Streeter: Well basically I came in at 8:00 PM because that was my shift to come in at 8:00 PM, on a 12-hour shift because somebody’s out. But anyway, came in at 8:00 PM and worked my shift that night. So at 6:15, 6:30 they told everybody to pack their stuff that was on that shift. Everybody packed their stuff and we all walked out to the gate, and that’s what we did. They walked us out to the clock out.

Jacob Morrison: How does it feel that they’re not… Y’all aren’t even asking for additional stuff during these contract negotiations, y’all have just been asking to keep what you’ve got.

Anthony Streeter: Right.

Clayton Adams: Extension of what we got.

Anthony Streeter: That’s all we want. I mean that’s all we ask for. Let’s keep what we got. But see, their mentality is because they got other mills, the other mills don’t have premium pay like we do. Okay. So they want us to get on the bandwagon with them. But everybody, from what I hear, everybody got their own master agreement. So you can’t compare our master agreement to everybody else’s master agreements because we get paid premium pay. That’s what we fight for, to keep the premium pay.

Clayton Adams: The excuse though they said is, well nobody else has got it. Yeah. Well that’s like telling me I can’t have a Cadillac cause nobody else in my neighborhood’s got a Cadillac. This mill has always been a top producer no matter what company owned it, this bill’s always been the top producer and still is.

Anthony Streeter: And see that’s the thing about this, I don’t understand why they’re giving us a hard time because we make the most money out of all the mills that they got. Matter of fact, this mill helps other mills stay afloat. Other mills stay afloat because they take money from this plant and they help the other plants.

Clayton Adams: The only reason they’re doing it is they never thought – And I’ve been here 34 years – We’ve never given them a strike vote, the way it was set up and the way we always voted. We come in here, we turn the contract down, and he’d give them a strike vote, and they wouldn’t get enough to do it. And they thought that’s what was going to happen this time. I’m a grown man. If I had a company making money and everything’s good, what’s wrong with that? You figure some pats on the back tell you did a good job. Hey, let’s just keep this going. We give you these raises here and whatever. Some little language, sometimes they want to change or we want to change. But that’s never happened.

Jacob Morrison: Yeah. What do you think changed? Because every contract that y’all have been under has been concessionary to a degree. Y’all have given them this and y’all have given them that. What is it about this language to retain the Sunday penalty pay and the Hog Law that is so important to y’all?

Clayton Adams: Cause it’s that much money you’re taking away from people. I can go tomorrow. I’ve got 34 years, I can get my pension, I can take my 401k and walk out the door. And then people say, well I could have taken the bonus, would’ve been better for me. I’m not going to work that much longer. Why don’t you just take the money and go on? I don’t want to be part of something that gives up that Sunday premium, because it’s been there since I’ve been there. And I don’t want to give it up on my watch.

Anthony Streeter: And then you got a younger generation that’s coming in now that’s been here probably five, four or five years, and they got to take over once we’re gone. Just like he said, I don’t have too much longer here. But the younger generation, you try to carry that on for them as they come through the ranks. But that’s basically what it’s all about. You can give your CEO so many millions of dollars, but you can’t distribute it with your employees, the ones that make you. Come on, that doesn’t sound right.

Clayton Adams: That company’s never been that way though. Treating people…

Anthony Streeter: But like I say, the company, when it became WestRock, when RockTenn took over, that’s when the whole thing changed. Everything changed. Everything changed. When it was Georgia Kraft, when it was Alabama Kraft they were good. When they became Mead it was good. When it was Westvaco, I mean we still had our little tussle, but we got over it. They didn’t mention anything about no premium pay. We kept our premium pay. But when they combined with WestRock, when WestRock combined with RockTenn, everything just went out the window

Jacob Morrison: And that, I think that’s something I want to pull out, that both of y’all sitting here are folks that in all likelihood you really could step away and it’s not going to affect y’all a whole lot. But y’all think it’s important for people that are coming up behind you to have this.

Clayton Adams: So I don’t want to be the ones that give it away. You might get it, but you’re gonna take it. I’m not giving it away. I consider this the same thing as my guns. If you want to come get them, you going to take them. I’m not giving them to you and I’m not giving you this premium. You’re going to take it.

Anthony Streeter: And then just like I say, if they do [inaudible], they don’t give us a premium pay. You’re going to have more people that are going to leave. They ain’t going to be wanting to work all these hours for nothing. For peanuts.

Clayton Adams: You’ve always got to hire the premium… I don’t care what they say, the premium money brings the premium people, and it’s always been that way with the mill. But now you’re not getting the premium people, and if you do this, you’re definitely not, just the way that the pay scale has changed outside of this mill. People are paying more money on different jobs and stuff that you just don’t get the premium people anymore. Where you used to, like Streeter said, you might try to get a job out here five, six years or 10 years before. But now, shoot, they interview them as fast as they can go, and they might get five out of 50 that end up working by the time you boil down to testing and 90 days and all that.

Jacob Morrison: And so what are y’all hoping comes out of this lockout?

Anthony Streeter: Well I just hope they come to the table and let us keep our premium pay. I mean all the other stuff is… You got some other stuff on there. But I mean like your two and a half, you’re going to get that raise anyway. The long-term disability and all this other stuff. I mean, that’s fine to have, but in the long run, you got to pay your people. If you want quality work, you got to pay your people, you got to pay your people.

Clayton Adams: You get what you pay for.

Jacob Morrison: Anything else that y’all think is important for folks to understand about this fight?

Clayton Adams: No, not I can think of.

Anthony Streeter: Not really. I just hope that they come to their wits and think about what they’re doing.

Clayton Adams: The damages. I think a lot of damage is already done. However the outcome comes out, whether it’s good or bad for us, they’ve changed some people’s attitudes, the way they feel about the company. I just don’t see doing people that way. I mean if I owned a company and we were making the money we made, I just don’t understand you treating people that way. It just doesn’t make any sense. And it’s just because they thought they could get away with it, and we finally stood up on this one.

Anthony Streeter: That’s the problem. Something they weren’t expecting. They weren’t expecting it. That’s why it’s going as long as it’s going. Because they weren’t expecting it, I guess they thought they were just going to go ahead and just give in for the little pennies that they want to give us.

Jacob Morrison: All right, well thanks for your time. I appreciate it.

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Jacob Morrison is host of The Valley Labor Report, Alabama’s only union talk radio show, Secretary-Treasurer of the North Alabama Area Labor Council, and sometimes freelance labor reporter. You can contact him at jmm0070@​alumni.​uah.​edu or follow him on twitter: @jacobm_al

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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