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Gulf States, union back at the table

Officials for the employee union at Gulf States Paper Co. have asked for a meeting tomorrow with members of the Demopolis industry’s management.

Dan Meissner, spokesman for Gulf States, said officials of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Union have requested a meeting on Friday, though Meissner could not give specifics of what will be discussed.

“We just expect to have a frank and open discussion with [union leaders],” he said.

Meissner did indicate that Gulf States has worked to resolve the labor dispute that has left employees without a contract for nearly a year.

“There’s a proposal that we have presented, but so far, we haven’t gotten any response,” Meissner said. “Maybe that’s what this meeting is about.”

Emory Barnette, who has served as a negotiator and spokesman for the PACE union, could not be reached immediately for comment Wednesday night.

On Jan. 7, 2004, a five-year contract between union employees and Gulf States expired. Employees voted Jan. 8 to reject the new contract offer from Gulf States because of changes in retirement opportunities with the company.

Company officials presented another proposed contract in February, which union employees, for a second time, rejected on Feb. 26.

The greatest dispute between employees and company officials is Gulf State’s decision to eliminate pension plans and replace them with expanded 401(k) options.

Members of management at the Demopolis plant have long since lost pensions in exchange for a 401(k) plan, but union employees have refused to accept the same compensation package.

On May 13, union members voted for the third time on a new contract, and after that vote failed, Meissner said Gulf States had made its “best and final offer.” He did not indicate why Gulf States agreed to enter into mediation, but over the past 11 months, Gulf States officials have consistently said they were willing to negotiate in good faith with union employees.

Meissner was not sure whether or not federal mediators will be involved with the discussions scheduled for Friday. Since mid May, when the mediation process began, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has worked to bring both sides to a common ground on the contract dispute.

“I can’t answer whether they’ll be there or not,” Meissner said of the FMCS. “I assume they will be, though.”

Gulf States employees have worked for the past 11 months under a contract that ended Dec. 31, 2003.