Jim Thompson's thoughts on what makes a successful mill prompted some memory reflection. It’s the mid 1980s. Unions and paper companies are knee deep in negotiating new Christmas and overtime rules. Everyone is dug in because these topics are critical on both sides. Up to this time in union/management history, contract negotiations were mostly adversarial. Us against them. Your ego vs. mine. It seemed to work fairly well, at least till now.
At our mill, we enjoyed tremendous success. We didn’t have the margins of fine paper at the time, but linerboard was doing just fine, thank you. But the negotiations just stunk. Management felt that if the company didn't change the OT and holiday rules, we'd become significantly less competitive. The union saw a significant erosion of benefits. Unstoppable object meets immovable wall.
The final union vote on the new contract was two weeks away and no one thought it'd be ratified. Management began serious plans for a strike: rosters developed, buses rented, housing secured and schedules planned. Salaried employees from throughout the company were given orders when and where to report for duty.
At least one factor played to the company's favor: We were the highest paid hourly workforce in the area. I don't know how much this influenced the final decision the workers made to vote for the contract. Perhaps a second factor was knowing for sure that management was going to weather a strike, at least for a while. Perhaps the fact that most of the employees were making twice what their non-paper industry friends were making also played a role. Whatever the reasons, common sense prevailed and a strike was averted with a new contract and new rules for OT and holidays, rules, by the way, that were already becoming new industry standards.
Something else changed. No one involved in this endeavor ever wanted to be that close to disaster again. The management/union relations improved to the point that the contract was re-ratified for the next 12 years basically unchanged. Something didn’t change. The mill remained very competitive because of the positive factors Jim noted (markets, energy, environment and labor). Labor remained a positive factor because once we started working together, things began improving even more.
I'll close with a note longtime readers have heard before. The January-March months seem to be the worst for teen drivers. We’ve had two totaled vehicles in the last two weeks and one other accident among our high school students that drive. Fortunately, the student wasn’t at fault in one accident and there haven’t been any serious injuries. But if you have student drivers in your family, take heed and ask for extra caution. And when the time comes, buy them or insist that they buy the safest vehicle they can afford. No, it’s not your antique 1966 Pontiac GTO.
Gene Canavan is a retired West Point Graduate and Paper Mill Utilities Manager and lives in Prattville, Alabama, USA.