Union to vote on new contract

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 23, 2004

DEMOPOLIS – The fate of what company officials call a ‘best offer’ contract proposal is now in the hands of union members at Gulf States Paper Co.

Company and union representatives met Tuesday morning at the West Alabama plant.

“The company has worked and presented another offer to the union,” Gulf States spokesman Dan Meissner said. “The union will vote Monday and Tuesday [of next week].”

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“The company can do no more – this is our best offer,” he said.

Members of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Union had requested the meeting last week.

Union officials say the proposal will be handled fairly.

“We’re going to give it a fair evaluation and a fair presentation, and it will be up to the membership,” said Emory Barnette, who has served as a negotiator and spokesman for the PACE union.

“We met with the company and they put forward another offer and we’ll take a look at it,” he said, indicating next week’s vote by union members would decide the union’s future course of action.

That course isn’t necessarily charted, said Barnette, who wouldn’t comment on whether a strike was in the making.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said. “[The offer] is different than the last offer we voted, so we’re going to vote it. We have an obligation to take the change back to the membership and let them vote.”

That membership has stayed on the job for nearly a year without a new contract, working the past 11 months under a contract that expired Dec. 31, 2003.

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.

– Clif Lusk contributed to this story.