WestRock union employees walk away from big payouts in rejecting deal

WestRock Paper Mill strike begins in Russell County
WestRock Paper Mill strike begins in Russell County
Published: Oct. 13, 2022 at 3:23 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 13, 2022 at 5:14 PM EDT
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Cottonton, Ala. (WTVM) - The lockout at the Russell County WestRock Paper Mill continues while negotiations for a new contract between the United Steel Workers Unions (USW) have essentially come to an end. The stalemate comes down to pay for overtime hours for workers and the company’s offer to “purchase” those rights to overtime pay from them.

Workers in the lockout/strike at the Mahrt Mill in Cottonton, Alabama had turned down almost $30,000 in buyout clause pay that would be afforded to them in the new labor contract. Workers tell WTVM they would have lost “premium pay” by accepting the one-time money offer from WestRock in the company’s “Last, Best and Final Offer”.

The company has not made an offer on a new contract since.

Documentation sent to WTVM News Leader 9 backs up that report and breaks down the financial details.

A term in the most recent contract between USW and WestRock for the Mahrt Mill stated that employees working on Sundays were entitled to “premium pay” that ensured all hours worked were for time-and-a-half pay. If an employee worked over 40 hours that week then the Sunday pay would translate to double-time pay. If a shift hit 16 hours worked for an employee, something that a WTVM source said happens regularly, the time and half pay is paid retroactively for the entire shift.

“This pay structure is no longer common practice in our industry, and WestRock has eliminated this from all other union facilities that we operate,” said WestRock Chief Communications Officer Donna Cox.

The “Last, Best and Final Offer” to USW from WestRock allows employees to keep Sunday “premium pay” for four more years in a sunsetting period and receive a $10,500 bonus paid in two installments. Another option is to forego the “premium pay” sunsetting period for a payout of $20,000 in two installments. Another $8,000 payment was offered from WestRock as a buyout of overtime “pyramiding” to be paid in two installments.

“They want to buy that language and take it away,” a pro-union source told WTVM. “He’s willing to do that because it’s nothing. It’s pennies on the dollar for what he’s going to save in the future by taking these (sic) guys’ overtime away.”

The “He” the source mentioned is WestRock CEO David Sewell. A high estimate of what it would cost WestRock to buy out overtime rules for 500 employees at $30,000 each would total out to $15,000,000. The numbers are lower than that in both categories, but for perspective, WestRock CEO David Sewell received a pay bump in 2021 worth over $16,000,000. The total increase was a 334% hike according to ExecPay.org.

A retroactive pay increase is a part of the contract offer along with other bullet point items, but the USW workers have said they will not budge on the current pay setup. Workers told News Leader 9′s Reagan Ranzer the day of the lockout the issue isn’t about money, but rather come down to the personal lives of the employees.

Employees in the mill work what is referred to as a swing shift. The schedule is as follows:

  • 1 DAY OFF
  • 1 DAY OFF
  • 4 DAYS OFF

As for a possible timeframe for when the lockout/strike could end, the source that spoke with WTVM said it could take “months” to come to an agreement. For now, company employees are operating the mill.

“The mill is operating normally,” Cox said. “A portion of the mill is currently down for planned maintenance, and will be returning to full service soon. The maintenance program has gone well and is on schedule.”