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WestRock labor dispute continues at Alabama mill, union rejects contract

COLUMBUS, Ga. (From news reports) -- For the third time, members from three united steel workers unions have voted to reject what Westrock paper mill representatives call the company's last, best, and final offer.

"We're tired of being out of work, all of us are, but we don't want to go back to a concessionary bargain either. We don't want to agree to a concessionary agreement," says union leader Les Phillips, president of local 1972.

Phillips along with more than 480 paper mill workers from the Mahrts Mill in Cottonton, AL have been off the job after a dispute over contract agreements since October 2022.

Union reps say there are still economic, non-economic, and insurance issues still at hand leaving the union and its members short of an agreement with the company.

"Issues around the premium pay resolution, our health care plan design, and then the return to work language there is some ambiguous language in there, so we want to get that clarify before any ratification takes place," said local 0971 president Bobby Watson.

Watson says both sides want to restore working relationships.

"This was a mill that ran very efficiently. You had employees that took ownership of that mill, they were proud of the work they did. We want to get back to that, the company wants to get back to that. At the end of the day, right, they want to make a profit. That's what corporations do, and employees want to be able to share in the profit, so everyone prospers in the end," said Watson.

63 retirements, several resignments, and three negation sessions later....the dispute remains ongoing.

The last bargaining attempt between the united steelworker unions representing employees and the company was over the course of 3 days in December resulting in an offer that members of the union evaluated January 2-4. On Wednesday, Jan, 4, the final vote resulted in a decline of the company's offer.

"Polls closed at 5 and we knew by about 6 it was rejected," said Phillips.

Westrock is not happy with the unions' decision. Manager of Corporate Communications Robby Johnson says, "Westrock is disappointed by the voting results and is aligning its next steps, which include continuing to operate the paper mill, until an agreement is approved and ratified."

Watson says each bargaining attempt has resulted in what he believes are stronger offers. Watson and Phillips are both hopeful in a resolution.

"We're hoping within 12-16 months that we can get the staff back up and get those issues corrected," said Watson.

"It can get done with just one more session of bargaining. hopefully we can all be reasonable and get it done," said Phillips.

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