November 10 - Employees for Weyerhaeuser, a lumber company in Washington and Oregon, went back to work last week after a 46-day strike ended the day after the company reported its third quarter results. The timberland company released net earnings of $310 million in the third quarter to its customers and shareholders on Oct. 27.
The next day, Weyerhaeuser announced through a press release that there had been a “successful resolution of a work stoppage involving members of the International Association of Machinists.” Although an agreement was reached, there were concessions made by the Union to get everyone back to work.
Joe Bethke, local electrician and millwright, gave an overall perspective of what workers are thinking and feeling since returning to their positions at the Cottage Grove mill location.
“The mill had a great startup,” Bethke said. “We spent a couple of days doing maintenance, making sure it was good to go. Our operators came back and just hit the door running.”
Some workers that were hoping to return to work sooner were lost. Staffing was affected, not dramatically, but enough to sense a change, according to Bethke.
“In June, they were going to do a bunch of shift changes as it was. So with the loss of some people, and in June looking at changing things around, we made the decision to agree to let them go ahead and make some changes on their shifts,” he said.
As for the contract, “Overall, the majority of those in our area down here are pretty happy with the outcome of the contract,” Bethke continued. “The main thing is that we got our insurance locked in and we got a pretty decent raise. People are pretty bitter about how much we put into Weyerhaeuser and then they didn't want to give us anything back to show their gratitude.”
He said some of the concessions with the new contract don’t “make you feel like you're part of the family anymore.”
The Cottage Grove site was also on the verge of breaking ground on a new sawmill before the strike began.
“We went out on strike and all went on hold. If you drive by the mill and you look at the storage areas on both sides of Highway 99, you'll see just piles and piles of steel. And then if you look to the left of that at the main entryway, you'll see piles and piles of new equipment out there, stuff that we're getting ready to start installing. That process is happening at this moment.” Bethke said.
In addition to the challenges that strikers faced at the picket line, Bethke noted that some of those striking decided to actively pursue state unemployment and food assistance benefits, both of which were denied.
“They told us to keep filing, because if it becomes a labor dispute, at some point, we may be eligible for unemployment. That was just kind of a shot in the dark,” he said.
But when some of the striking workers went to apply for SNAP food stamp benefits, they were rejected.
According to Bethke, a couple members applied in person and were told, “Well, you guys should be choosing not to work, therefore, the homeless are in more need.”
It was a frustrating low point for workers but, where one door closes another opens. Enter the community of Cottage Grove. Faced with striking without pay, accumulating bills, and day-to-day challenges at the picket line, the support from the community was invaluable.
“It is unbelievable, the amount of support that we got from the community, from individuals to big businesses, and everybody in between,” Bethke said. “It seemed like every food cart and coffee cart in town was popping in and cooking and supplying drinks. It was awesome — their attitudes and the support that the community has given us. I cannot say enough to say thank you. What they did was just amazing.”
The support received by the community at large was recognized by the workers on social media, where posts of the strike ending generated online engagement and positive reactions.
For more information, visit www.weyerhaeuser.com.