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Sticks and stones break more than bones: communications key to insure productivity during economic downturn.

According to myth, a powerful and boastful behemoth was struck and slain by a tiny stone, hurled by an erstwhile hero. Guided by his strength of conviction, this boy brought to bear an entire army, and gained the respect of king and soldier alike. How easily this situation could have been reversed, with the giant quashing the rebellion, and furthering the ends of his army, unopposed.

Had the giant sought the counsel of his counterpart, and a discussion of the needs and desires of each party ensued, a beneficial solution might have been reached, and each might have profited from the interaction. Such was not the case.

Over the last year or so, unrest in the pulp and paper industry has given rise to conflicts of a comparable nature. A slowing economy and other factors resulted in reduced demand, leading to production cutbacks, downtime, layoffs and in some cases termination. Today, companies are fighting to stay in the black and mill workers are fighting to stay employed.

Circumstances often mitigate one's response to given situations. Hard times force people to consider alternatives that may have a negative effect on others. Corporations consider how to maintain costs at the lowest possible level, while ensuring the highest degree of profitability. Labor looks to sustain their viability in a tumultuous market, and ensure the needs of themselves and their families. Is there a bridge that can cross this chasm?

Let's begin by looking at the business climate in North America. Information provided by the Board of Labor Statistics suggests that unemployment in the U.S. is rising significantly for the first time in eight years.

Statistics provided by Challenger, Gray and Christmas (CGC), a Chicago-headquartered outplacement company, state that the total number of publicly reported layoffs for 2001 has exceeded 983,000+, surpassing the year-long record of 677,000+ set in 1998. The CEO of CGC suggests that company executives are pessimistic about the prospects for the remainder of the year.

We've also seen Alan Greenspan and the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, in an effort to boost the downward spiraling economy, lower the Federal funds rate from 6.5% to its present 3.75%.

So, with this at best cloudy situation, how would you expect industry to react?

The North American pulp and paper community saw a number of strikes over the last six months. Work stoppages occurred in Iroquois Falls, Ontario, at Abitibi-Consolidated Inc.'s paper mill; in Kalamazoo, MI, at Georgia-Pacific Corp.'s paper plant; in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, at Kruger Inc.'s newsprint mill.

One of the largest incidents was in the Pacific Northwest. Weyerhaeuser had 1400 strikers bring operations in four of its mills, in Washington and Oregon, to a halt.

In the words of one Cosmopolis, WA pulp mill worker, "we're dealing with a bunch of financiers, not pulp and paper mill people anymore." His mood reflects tire sentiment that the pulp and paper industry is only interested in the bottom line, and not the backbone that supports it.

In New York, negotiations between Finch, Pruyn & Co. Inc. and the seven unions representing the 600 workers that struck the company have reached a standoff. Federal mediators, attempting to encourage resolution of their differences, are struggling to keep representatives of the two parties at the table. Bitterness over the opposition's stance on financial concerns has kept the unions and Finch, Pruyn from meeting in the middle as of mid-August.

As of mid-August, conclusions have been reached in all of the aforementioned strikes except for Finch, Pruyn, but are these harbingers of strikes to come? And how can labor and management work in concert to prevent future strikes?

According to information provided by the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers (AWPPW) and the Paper/Allied Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE), these strikes do not represent a trend.

Lynne Baker, associate director of PACE communications, indicates that the strikes that took place, and backed by PACE, were based on localized initiatives at a particular mill. There is no underlying motivation for further, industrywide strikes. "Mill workers don't want to race to the bottom ... they are interested in long contracts," says Baker.

Some corporations are reaching out to their workers. Weyerhaeuser's Timberlands vice president Tom Holmes said, "As a company, our first obligation to our employees and to the community is to stay in business. We must continue down the difficult path of change or we will jeopardize the viability of the business and all of the associated employment."

Holmes says poor market conditions and the fact that the coast has the highest delivered log costs in the world is making it difficult for the coastal forest industry to compete in a globally competitive market. "Given these challenging circumstances, I encourage everyone to embrace much-needed change and to focus on solutions that will keep our operations safely running and people working," said Holmes.

Recognizing that labor and management often cannot see eye to eye, a council was formed in 1995 by four paper industry and labor representatives. The Southern Pulp and Paper Industry Labor Management Council (SPPILMC) set out to broker the differences that industry workers and managers often encounter. They seek industry wide "best practices," and discuss the advantages, disadvantages, opportunities and implementation obstacles of various practices, without recommending particular programs. Some of their objectives include:

* Improve labor-management communication in the pulp & paper industry

* Explore approaches to increasing productivity and competitiveness

* Identify practices, procedures, and relationships that succeed in providing mutual gain for labor and management

* Promote the involvement of workers in decisions that affect their working lives

* Expand working relationships between workers and managers

* Enhance economic development in the pulp & paper industry

Information from the SPPILMC web site: http://main.uab.edu/show.asp?durki=8859

LESSONS TO BE LEARNED

The fable illustrates that might does not always make right, and that the downtrodden may triumph in adversity by placing their faith in their conviction. But there are other lessons to be learned.

Clearly there are many challenges that face not only the pulp and paper industry, but industry at large. In times of an economic downturn, all parties become concerned about the future. While the concerns of the corporation are not always in line with the concerns of the worker, a respect for the other's position is important. Maintaining a constant dialogue between management and labor should ensure that each is aware of the other's priorities, and how those can best be met.

Brian Aliffi is assistant editor, Solutions! magazine. Address correspondence to Aliffi at baliffi@tapp.org.
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Networking
Author:Aliffi, Brian
Publication:Solutions - for People, Processes and Paper
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Words:1094
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