In what has proved to be a modern-day David-and-Goliath tale, a group of local workers at the MeadWestvaco paper mill in Covington fought the United Steelworkers union (USW) for the right to represent their interests and won.
The process wasn’t easy. USW, a long-established, global organization with 1.2 million active and retired members, fought hard to retain its standing at the Covington plant. The newly formed Covington Paperworkers Union (CPU) Local 675 operates on voluntary union dues, and its officers, all full-time MeadWestvaco employees, have to man the union hall during their off hours.
The stakes were too high to back down, though, explains Roy Hall, president of CPU, who noted that the decision to go it alone came after nearly a year of failed contract negotiations between USW and MeadWestvaco.
“We felt like in a lot of instances, we would attempt to propose items and talk to the company about issues that we had, but the union representatives would substitute their international agenda items for discussion rather than what we, the local union, had prepared,” he explains.
In October 2007, Covington paper mill employees voted to disaffiliate themselves from USW, and the CPU was established. That’s when the real fight started.
USW successfully appealed a first employee vote to see which union would have the right to represent mill employees. In a second election, no union gained a majority in a close vote because a third option, “neither,” was listed on the ballot. USW ultimately lost on Oct. 14, when a third vote put the CPU ahead by 39 votes. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certified the vote on Oct. 26.
“When we started this process, the information officer at the NLRB told us that it would take 42 days, possibly less, to disaffiliate, form our new union and start bargaining with the company,” Hall recalls. “Instead, it took us two days shy of two years.”
CPU officials now hope to unify plant employees and focus on negotiating with MeadWestvaco on key contract issues, Hall says. The union’s goals include restoring language that honors seniority, getting a health insurance plan with strong benefits at a relatively low cost and successfully addressing concerns over pay raises, promotions and pensions.
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