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Bad Blood Between Paper Mill and Workers Over Contract Fight

July 29, 1990

TICONDEROGA, N.Y. (AP) _ Sunday has never been a day of leisure at the International Paper mill that dominates this historic Adirondack Mountain village.

The workers liked it that way because they got paid double time. But the paper company, embroiled in a bitter labor dispute with the union representing nearly 700 of the mill’s 850 employees, recently decreed it will only pay straight time for Sunday work.

The workers are entering their third year without a contract. The United Paperworkers International Union says there is nothing it can do to reverse the company’s decision to eliminate premium pay without a contract in place.

The company says it needs wage and benefit concessions from workers to stay competitive. The company has already eliminated time-and-a-half pay for holidays.

″I’ve negotiated a lot of contracts over the years, and I’ve never seen the company negotiate in the style it does now, and its style is, ’take it or leave it,‴ said Robert Blaise Jr., a past president and current recording secretary of UPIU Local 497.

Negotiations have deadlocked. Morale, the union claims, has slumped.

″It’s deteriorated to the point where no one gives a damn,″ Blaise said.

Dan Fitzgerald, a truck driver at the mill, said, ″it’s rock-bottom. It’s like Stalag 13.″

″It’s difficult for everybody in a period like this, but ... we continue doing our jobs and are committed to creating a good product in a safe environment,″ said Dale N. Sutherland, an International Paper spokesman.

Company officials, union leaders and village authorities differ over what effect the contract dispute has had on the community. But all agree that International Paper means a great deal to Ticonderoga.

″I’d shudder at the thought if International Paper ever had massive layoffs,″ said Kitty J. Garrand, executive director of the Ticonderoga Area Chamber of Commerce.

″Without IP you might as well lock your doors,″ said a sales clerk in a retail clothing shop on Montcalm Street, Ticonderoga’s main drag.

International Paper has been Ticonderoga’s chief employer since 1925. It is also one of the world’s largest paper manufacturers with 67,000 employees worldwide, 55,000 of them in the United States.

The Ticonderoga mill pumps millions of dollars into the local economy, including $22 million a year in wages for its 655 hourly employees, Sutherland said.

Ticonderogans are sensitive to anything concerning the company. They watched uncomfortably as nearly 2,100 UPIU members lost their jobs to replacement workers in a 16-month strike at IP mills in Jay, Maine; De Pere, Wis.; and Lock Haven, Pa. Between 1,800 and 1,900 of them remain out of work, said Gordon Brehm, spokesman for the UPIU in Nashville, Tenn.

Worries that replacement workers would be used locally peaked last winter when more than 1,000 non-union workers arrived to fill temporary maintenance and construction jobs at the mill during its annual shutdown.

The non-union workers were employed by BE&K Construction Co., a Birmingham, Ala., contractor that supplied International Paper with replacement workers during the strike.

Using BE&K workers in Ticonderoga was a humiliation for the union.

″We don’t believe in the credo of using non-union help and we don’t believe they should be working in this mill,″ said Blaise.

BE&K workers rented every available apartment and motel room in Ticonderoga and surrounding towns, pumping money into an area desperate for extra dollars when the summer tourist season ends. But the workers - dubbed ″beakers″ by the UPIU - were blamed for what passes for a crime wave in this rural community near the Vermont line.

Two BE&K employees were accused of sexually assaulting a female co-worker, while another was charged with stabbing to death his roommate, also a BE&K worker, in the nearby town of Schroon. It was the first murder there since the early 1950s, police said.

At the union hall, a door is decorated with a mock wanted poster depicting a rat in a police lineup with the words ″BE&K worker″ underneath. The last of the BE&K workers left the area in late April and ″it’s business as usual around the community,″ Garrand said.

Contention is nothing new in Ticonderoga.

Located on the southern reaches of Lake Champlain and the northern shore of Lake George, Ticonderoga’s name comes from the Iroquois ″cheonderoga,′ ′ or ″the place between two lakes.″

It became a strategic portage for generations of marauding Indians and later French, British and American explorers and soldiers who fought for control of Fort Ticonderoga, a 235-year-old stone fortress outside the village.

The union, which last struck International Paper locally in the early 1970s to protest allegedly unsafe working conditions, said there is no justification for cutting pay or seeking wage concessions since the company is so profitable. In 1989 International Paper reported record earnings of $864 million.

The company contends the paper industry is in a down trend and the pay concessions are necessary if the company wants to stay competitive in the world market.

Of International Paper’s 22 major paper manufacturing mills, four are operating without union contracts. The company negotiates each mill’s contract separately, so if some are halted by strikes others keep running.

″When you’ve got 30, 40, 50 mills with no contracts ... you might have more bargaining power,″ said James W. De Zalia, president of Local 497.

Union officials in Ticonderoga say profits have come at their expense, although mill wages are far above the average for the region. Ticonderoga mill workers average about $13.50 per hour and the average annual pay for hourly employees is approximately $35,000.

But De Zalia said the workers hardly have an easy life.

″We work seven-days stretches, holidays, Sundays,″ De Zalia said. ″You work around chemicals and all the hazards″ of factory work, he said.

Last January, union members voted 453 to 67 to reject the latest company offer. No negotiations have been held since. The company refuses to discuss specifics of the contract dispute.

The cuts in premium pay and an increase in health insurance deductions have cost workers thousands of dollars a year, De Zalia said. That translates into fewer dollars spent at local businesses, he said.

″As for buying cars, building new homes, it has to have an effect,″ De Zalia said. ″After all these years, all of a sudden they take it right away from you.″

″I didn’t have a chance for college. But I want to make sure my kids have a chance to go,″ Fitzgerald said. ″It’s going to be a burden.″

But the workers are apprehensive about challenging the company.

″Hopefully the company will say, ’hey, let’s settle before something happens,‴ De Zalia said. ″Nobody wants to strike. Nobody wins. Everybody loses in a strike.″

End adv for Sunday July 29

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