May 8, 2007 in Business

Potlatch gets an earful

By and The Spokesman-Review
 
Brian Plonka photo

Steelworkers Glenn Smith, left, and Kim Smith, no relation, talk shop Monday outside the Hotel Lusso in support of union members employed by Potlatch. The USW delegation congregated outside the Potlatch annual meeting in downtown Spokane.
(Full-size photo)

About 70 Steelworkers demonstrated outside of Potlatch Corp.’s annual meeting in Spokane on Monday morning, urging company officials to offer more generous wages and benefits to workers at its Lewiston pulp and paper mill.

“As we all know, Potlatch has been a profitable company in recent years,” said Robert LaVenture, assistant director of the United Steelworkers District 12, which covers the western states.

Now, it’s time to repay workers for the concessions they took during a four-year contract negotiated in 2002, which helped Potlatch weather a particularly difficult period in the wood products industry, LaVenture said. The company lost $234 million in 2002 and cut the ranks of both salaried and hourly workers.

“Workers never like to accept concessions,” he said. “But our workers were willing to listen to Potlatch with an open ear.”

However, that trust has been eroded by the large raises given to Potlatch executives in the intervening years, LaVenture said. Last year, company Chairman and CEO Mike Covey earned nearly $3.6 million in salary, bonuses, stock awards and other compensation.

Matt Van Vleet, Potlatch’s director of corporate communication said, “We have a very good relationship with our union, historically. We are not used to the type of display like we’ve had today. It’s a surprise to us.”

Union workers held signs demonstrating in favor of increases in wages and 401(k) contributions and canvassed the sidewalk near the Hotel Lusso, at Sprague Avenue and Post Street, where Potlatch’s annual meeting took place.

“We had a lot of members who wanted to come to a shareholders meeting and make a presence,” said Jim Kidder, president of USW Local 712 and a recovery boiler operator in Lewiston.

The demonstration precedes four days of contract negotiations, which resume today in Lewiston. The Steelworkers represent about 1,050 of Potlatch’s 2,200 employees in Lewiston.

There have been 34 bargaining sessions so far, Van Vleet said. “We feel comfortable that when we return to the table we’ll reach a contract (agreement).”

According to company figures, $21 per hour is the average wage for a worker in Lewiston, excluding overtime pay. The value of the benefit package amounts to an additional $14 per hour, officials said.

Kidder said contract negotiations started in September. Last month, the union rejected the management’s contract proposal by a 90 percent margin. At issue, Kidder said, are wage and pension increases that union members want applied retroactively, to cover the months in negotiation. Also, he said, members want some changes to the company health plan.

“We’ve been back and forth since September,” he said. In addition, Kidder said some employees haven’t met Covey, who took over last year as CEO.

“In Lewiston, we’re kind of used to shaking hands with our CEO and saying, ‘Hi.’ ”

Potlatch’s Van Vleet said Covey has been to Lewiston many times over the past year. “He’s very involved in all the operations of the company,” Van Vleet said.

Kidder said there’s no talk of a strike, but members hope to resolve the contract issues soon.

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