UPDATE — Union OKs new 6-year contract at Nippon paper mill in Port Angeles, avoiding possible strike
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Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News
Nippon Paper Industries USA was busy Thursday in Port Angeles. Workers staged a walkout there in March.

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT ANGELES — Nippon Paper Industries USA union workers approved a six-year contract this week, averting a possible strike.

The agreement restores the $3 per hour that was cut from workers' wages in a contract Nippon imposed in March — one that prompted a five-day strike — and freezes wages at pre-strike levels for the foreseeable future, Darrel Reetz, vice president of Association of Western Pulp & Paper Workers Local 155, said Thursday.

Nippon employees had not had a wage increase since they received a 75-cents-an-hour increase in 2010, Reetz said.

“You are looking at six to seven years, more likely seven years, without any wage increases, and there is no cost-of-living increase,” Reetz said.

“That's a long stretch there.”

The pact is effective immediately; runs through May 31, 2019; “and is reflective of issues affecting the competitiveness of all manufacturers, including pulp and paper mills,” according to a statement Thursday from mill Manager Harold Norlund.

Workers voted 62-46 for the contract during three union membership meetings held Wednesday at the Moose Lodge in Port Angeles, Reetz said.

“If the numbers had swayed the other way, we would have been in unity to go out on strike,” Reetz said.

“We were ready.”

Local 155 bargaining board member Frank Vervaart of Port Angeles recommended approval of the proposed contract at the 7 p.m. meeting Wednesday, Reetz said, adding that the bargaining board's actual vote on the contract was not disclosed to union members.

The mood at the contract-vote meeting Reetz attended was “somber, frustration,” he said.

Workers will retroactively receive the $3 an hour they lost when the company unilaterally imposed a contract March 18 following a lengthy dispute over terms of the agreement.

The employees went on strike March 20, effectively shutting the plant down and picketing near the Ediz Hook paper manufacturing plant.

They returned to work March 25.

Workers made several concessions in approving the pact, Reetz said.

Hourly wages ranging from $15.10 for laborers to $30.73 for certified machinists will be frozen until at least 2016 or 2017, according to the agreement.

“If the mill shows a pre-tax profit during the fiscal years 2016 or 2017, the mill and the union will conduct a limited re-opener for the sole purpose of negotiating wage increases for bargaining unit members based on the amount of the mill's pretax profit,” the contract says.

Employees also will no longer receive vision coverage and will see their medical insurance deductibles increase from $200 to $600 and from $800 to $2,000, depending on the insurance network plan the employee carries.

They also will no longer receive company-paid post-retirement medical benefits that they have until now been receiving until age 65.

“We took a hit on that,” Reetz said.

Employees can retire when their age added to their years of employment at Nippon equals 90, he said.

The contract also eliminates “Sunday premium time,” under which employees were paid time-and-a-half for working Sundays.

“You've got to hit the 40-hour mark now” to get paid overtime Sundays, Reetz said.

Norlund said the contract guarantees that Nippon remains viable in a shrinking market for the paper that Nippon produces.

The Japanese-owned company manufactures paper for telephone books and newsprint for the Peninsula Daily News.

“The printed pages per day has been declining,” he said Thursday. “There is nothing that is going to change that.

“So the mills that remain have got to be very competitive,” Norlund said.

“That's why [Nippon Industries USA] and Local 155 have worked to have a contract that allows us to be competitive.”

There are 200 hourly and salaried employees at the mill, a number that has remained constant in recent years, Norlund said.

“When you reach a collective bargaining agreement, you are counting on a future. That's why you have to make changes,” he said.

“All employees at the mill who are hourly or [salaried] are joining united on wanting a future for the business.”

Workers are completing construction on a biomass-fueled electric co-generation plant, electricity from which Nippon will use to power the mill and hopes to sell.

The start-up date has been moved back from mid-September, Norlund said.

“It should be producing electricity in early October,” he said.

Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at paul.gottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: August 01. 2013 6:46PM
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