Paper workers are beginning to build a global resistance to global challenges…

While the US steelworkers’ union, United Steel Workers (USW), has been lobbying Washington to take action on the global crisis in the steel industry, one of USW’s other sectors—the pulp and paper workers—has found, through its affiliation to the IndustriALL global union, a potential solution to the difficulties besetting their industry that can provide a model for all industries.

A recent article on the IndustriALL web site covered the latest meeting of the global union’s Pulp and Paper Work Group. This was hosted by the USW during its 2016 Paper Sector Conference in Pittsburgh early in April. The article noted that participating pulp and paper unions from the USA, Canada, Australia, Germany, UK, Sweden and Finland “reported challenging situations for members.”

Young workers are no longer attracted to the industry and, according to the article, “a large subsector of the industry is shrinking as people communicate more and more electronically.” Growing areas of the industry, such as tissue and packaging manufacture, are beginning to suffer from overcapacity and production is shifting geographically from the global North to South, and from West to East. Corners are cut, jobs are lost, safety goes by the board.

“Many pulp and paper jobs have moved from North America and Europe to China. Now as China’s domestic growth slows the country has massive overcapacity in pulp and paper … causing oversaturation of the market and yet more threat to jobs elsewhere.”

So far, so familiar. But the paper workers are beginning to build a global resistance to global challenges.

USW’s Leeann Foster co-chairs the pulp and paper sector for IndustriALL —together with Petri Vanhala, president of Finnish paper workers union Paperiliitto. She brought 550 delegates to their feet with a rousing speech.

“Only by standing together as paper workers in all countries can we ensure good, safe and sustainable jobs in the sector,” she said. “Just as the USW is aiming to organize more workers in the multinational paper companies, we must think globally in our campaigns.”

One company in which pulp and paper workers are already thinking globally is Sappi, the South African based multinational, originally incorporated in 1936 as South African Pulp and Paper Industries Limited, and now extending its manufacturing operations—chiefly through a series of mergers and acquisitions—into North America and Europe, including Finland, Switzerland, Belgium and Germany. Sappi’s European division, with seven mills and 16 sales offices, now represents the largest part of the company’s business both in terms of workers employed (5,131) and proportion of group sales (49 percent). But the move to lower wage economies will not long be delayed and, even as it expands, Sappi is closing long-established mills or selling smaller mills to other papermaking concerns.

Almost all Sappi facilities are unionised, and over two-thirds of the company’s total of almost 13,000 workers is covered by collective bargaining agreements. These unionised workers now belong to a company-wide global organisation—a network of unions from many countries—which met during the USW conference to discuss pressing issues reported by shop stewards, notably understaffing and training.

Sappi, like many other large companies during the current extended global downturn, is increasing production while reducing employment levels. This strategy has a long term impact as the combination of increasing overtime and decreasing training results in an aging workforce. Quite simply, younger people look for better opportunities elsewhere.

But the developing global organisation of Sappi workers is an example for all employees of transnational corporations as well as workers in the pulp and paper industry worldwide.

“This network continues its important work on information exchange and building the coordination between Sappi workers,” said Peter Schuld of IG BCE Germany, the chair of the Sappi union network. “As we continue to learn from each other we will all be stronger. We will continue to work towards a contractual relationship with the company at the international level through a global framework agreement.”

Global framework agreements in pulp and paper processing do exist and the unions are building networks, like the one at Sappi, at other major manufacturers including International Paper, Huhtamaki, Smurfit Kappa and Mondi. These networks need to move on from exchanging information, debating and learning from each other. The international economic and environmental situation demands that unionised workers become active across a range of urgent issues. That is the real significance of the USW’s conference slogan: ‘Stand Up. Speak Out. For Safety.’

In his speech to the plenary session of the Pittsburgh conference, IndustriALL’s Assistant General Secretary Kemal Özkan thanked the USW and addressed that slogan.

“I salute you, dear sisters and brothers, for the inspirational leading role the USW has played down the years at the heart of the global labour movement,” Özkan said. “Working in the paper industry can be very dangerous. We must build our trade union networks at paper companies to connect workers, share experiences and collective bargaining successes, but also to act as one to reject dangerous plants and mills.”

Nineteen USW members in the pulp and paper industry have been killed in the two years since the union’s last paper conference. They were killed by the same corporate greed and lust for deregulation that fuels all aspects of the global crisis in the economy and the environment. And that is really the point of having union networks: not just to talk and share, but to act so that the world can become a better, safer, more peaceful place.

More information [In Memoriam: USW Paper Sectors 2014-2016]

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Gary Herman

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