Now it gets serious: Golf States union rejects contract; members haven’t discussed strike

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 17, 2004

Today, the highway won’t look much different. Cars headed west out of Demopolis will take their normal right turns into Gulf States Paper Corp. In a month from now, no one even wants to imagine the possibilities.

Thursday, members of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union overwhelmingly rejected — for the third consecutive time — a contract offer from Gulf States company officials.

“This would be a serious blow to the community and the people here,” Mayor Austin Caldwell said of the potential ramifications of the failed vote. “Obviously, there’s a fear of the possibilities. But there’s also an engrained hope that things will work out.”

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For now, at least, a Gulf States spokesman says there’s nothing left to work out.

“It was our best and final offer,” said Dan Meissner, spokesman for the Tuscaloosa-based company. “Obviously, we’re disappointed, but there are no further meetings or negotiations scheduled at this time.”

PACE Union spokesman Emory Barnette, a former Gulf States employee, sounded a bit more optimistic Thursday.

“Hopefully, we’ll go back to the table [with Gulf States],” Barnette said.

While neither Meissner nor Barnette were willing to discuss specifics of sticking points in the latest employee contract, it has become wide knowledge that the two sides cannot agree on Gulf States’ decision to eliminate pension plans and introduce expanded 401(k) options for its employees.

Union members at the Gulf States plant refused to accept the company’s offer for the 401(k) option, though management personnel at the Demopolis mill have long since lost their pensions in exchange for the same sort of retirement program.

What’s Next?

No one wants to think about the looming “S” word floating around Demopolis after union members rejected what appears to be Gulf States’ final contract offer. Meissner, in fact, said the word shouldn’t even be mentioned.

The reality, at least to some citizens, is that Gulf States union employees could repeat the actions of Demopolis employees in 1966.

“Anything can happen,” Caldwell said, “but nobody — not Gulf States or the Union — want it to happen.”

On Aug. 16, 1966, union members announced plans to strike. They carried out the threat on Nov. 27 of the same year.

Negotiations, much like today, stalled during the strike period until Gov. George C. Wallace intervened and brought both sides to Montgomery for further negotiations.

Nearly a month-and-a-half later, Gulf States and union members reached an agreement and employees went back to work.

According to Barnette, a work stoppage has not been discussed yet.

“It’s not something we’ve talked about, but we don’t have any intentions of not working under the current contract,” he said.

Since union members rejected the first contract offer from Gulf States more than five months ago, they’ve operated under the old contract, which expired in January.

Meissner said he doesn’t think there will be a work stoppage, either.

“We certainly don’t expect a strike,” he said.

On at least one occasion, management at Gulf States had little patience with a union strike. In February 1978, Gulf States closed its Tuscaloosa plant and put 1,200 people out of work following a bitter strike between employees and company officials. Without the University of Alabama as an employer, some believe that strike could have devastated the local economy in Tuscaloosa.

While Demopolis has no major industry on which to rely should the worst happen at the plant, Caldwell said this isn’t the first time negotiations have reached this point between union and company officials.

“I can’t remember the exact time, but we’ve been at this point before,” Caldwell said. “In that instance, I believe they ended up settling through mediation.”

Though there are no plans for further discussions, Barnette said he will work hard to get back to a position of open negotiations with the company.

“That’s our intention right now,” he said.

Other than that, Barnette said the PACE union has decided to limit its comments on the future of contract talks between members and Gulf States.

Does Demopolis Matter?

Gulf States is not a company that relies solely on the manufacturing of pulp and paperboard products — the role of the Demopolis mill.

Along with the production of pulp and paperboard, the company manages 400,000 acres of Alabama woodlands and is thus one of the largest property owners in the state.

Gulf States also has operated a lumber and pole manufacturing business for the past 50 years, and most of the pine timber owned by the company is used for the sawmill in Moundville.

Once paperboard is manufactured in Demopolis, it is sent to the paperboard packaging plants owned by Gulf States in other parts of the country. Since opening this service, Gulf States has fast become on the nation’s top producers in this line.

Finally, Gulf States has placed a great deal of focus on its Westervelt division and real estate work. Currently the company owns at least four high-end residential developments in Tuscaloosa and has plans to begin construction of a new development in north Shelby County.

With its diversity, some question whether Gulf States has paramount interest in keeping the Demopolis mill in operation.

Meissner said the local plant is critical to the company’s success.

“Pulp and paperboard is one of the core businesses of Gulf States,” Meissner said. “But clearly, we do need to have a contract to ensure the stability of our on-going workforce for the Demopolis plant.”