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Clearwater Paper Lewiston, Idaho mill manager goes on leave after alleged 'Poor Baby's' sign incident

LEWISTON, Idaho (From news reports) -- The Lewiston Clearwater Paper mill manager at the center of a union dispute was put on leave from his job Wednesday after issuing an apology.

Shannon Myers, a company spokeswoman, declined to say if the leave was paid or unpaid, citing a policy that prohibits the disclosure of that information.

The company took the action as negotiations slowed between Clearwater Paper and unions representing the majority of the company's Lewiston employees.

Union members allege mill manager Donnie Ely showed a sign that read "Poor Baby's" [sic] when he drove past a union rally Tuesday.

The event was held to draw attention to negotiations for a labor agreement to replace a contract that expired Aug. 31, 2017. Pay and medical benefits are two of the issues that haven't been resolved.

Ely provided an apology Wednesday that stopped short of identifying any words on the sign.

"I held a sign conveying a message that was unprofessional and driven by emotion," Ely wrote in letter to all Clearwater Paper employees that was distributed to the media.

"My behavior was inexcusable and a result of a poor decision by me that does not represent the company view of labor negotiations, our team and the company's core values," he wrote.

The apology, however, did not resolve the issue. The two sides had planned to meet Wednesday. Those discussions are now "tentatively scheduled" to resume at the end of this month, Mark Rhodes, president of United Steelworkers Local 712, said in an email Wednesday.

"As a result of the significance of this matter, it is being looked at and discussed by the unions at the international level," he said.

Local 712 is one of three unions involved in the talks. The others are USW Local 608 and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 73. Together they represent 929 employees who make pulp, paperboard for packaging and dishes and tissue for goods like toilet paper and paper napkins.

What Ely reportedly did "changed the entire tone of negotiations," according to a statement issued Tuesday by all three groups.

Ely attempted to dissuade them from that stance in his letter, reminding them he was a millwright and supervisor prior to being mill manager.

"I have the utmost respect for what you do, day in and day out, to keep our mill running," Ely wrote. "... I understand the future and success of Clearwater Paper is dependent on all of us working together. I hope this unfortunate personal incident does not change that."

He also acknowledged that bargaining is time consuming and emotional. "The company and the union have taken great care to work deliberately through the issues to ensure we get it right," he wrote. "I understand my actions have damaged this process and for that, I am truly sorry."

Clearwater Paper reiterated that position in a prepared statement from Steve Bowden, its senior vice president of pulp and paperboard.

"We want to be clear," Bowden said. "This incident does not represent Clearwater Paper's core values or its view of labor negotiations. We value the contribution of each and every one of our team members, and we remain committed to furthering our strong relationship with our labor partners and working diligently toward a new ratified labor agreement."

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