Balance billing: an unwelcome surprise that could resurface

Elaine Williams

Clearwater Paper executives and hundreds of union employees who work at the company’s Lewiston plant could be in a stalemate.

Members of United Steelworkers Local 608 and Local 712 are working under a contract that was originally intended to last for three years, ending Aug. 31, 2017. Talks are anticipated to resume this summer, but no date has been set.

What could happen next is difficult to predict, because neither side is disclosing what options are under consideration.

Question: Why are union employees reporting to work, even though the contract was originally expected to end in August 2017?

Answer: The contract contains a provision that its terms remain in effect until a new agreement is reached, unless union officials or Clearwater Paper executives give notice they will terminate the contract, Clearwater Paper spokeswoman Shannon Myers said in an email.

Q: Are there any consequences of the contract lasting longer than was originally planned?

A: The last time there was a general wage increase for union employees was in September 2016, according to a joint statement from United Steelworkers Local 608 and Local 712.

Q: What issues are not resolved in the contract negotiations?

A: Clearwater Paper proposed that new hires receive a high-deductible, catastrophic health care plan and lower wages than existing employees, according to union officials.

“In addition to costing (new) employees thousands of dollars, the company’s current proposals are predictably unacceptable and would undermine decades of collective bargaining progress and divide our membership,” according to the joint union statement. “This would also ... have negative effects on the local (economy).”

Clearwater Paper acknowledged it is seeking changes to medical coverage to address the rising cost of health care.

Q: Are there any other reasons contract negotiations have taken so long?

A: Clearwater Paper encountered two challenges that slowed talks, Myers said.

The company cut more than 100 positions after one of its largest customers, Kroger, began ordering less private-label tissue. The products in that category include toilet paper, paper napkins, paper towels and facial tissue.

It also debuted a $160 million upgrade featuring a continuous pulp digester, which cooks wood chips more evenly than the equipment it replaced, increasing the amount of fiber Clearwater Paper gets from each chip. The investment was supposed to provide $30 million in annual savings, but so far the savings is only at $10 million a year. Using a new catalyst in a polysulfide reactor that was part of the project is expected to remedy the problem and will be introduced by the end of the year. The polysulfide reactor converts sodium sulfide into polysulfide, a chemical compound that protects chips from degradation.

Q: Union members held a rally in April along E. Main Street, a road leading to the mill. Employees participated when they were not scheduled to be at work, and operations at the mill were not interrupted. How likely is it that union members will strike?

A: It is not clear. A statement posted online in early June by locals 608 and 712 talked cryptically about readying for “next steps” without specifying what they might be. If the unions were to strike, they would have to first terminate the contract, which they haven’t done, Myers said.

The union rhetoric appeared to moderate last week.

“We trust in the collective bargaining process and are willing to compromise, but Clearwater Paper cannot claim to respect workers, our families, (and our) communities and at the same time try to force us to accept unfair and unnecessary concessions,” union leaders said in a statement issued Friday.

Q: Why do union negotiations at Clearwater Paper matter to people in the community who don’t work at the mill?

A: Clearwater Paper is one of Lewiston’s largest employers, and about 900 people are covered by the union contracts of locals 608 and 712. Several have said they are holding off on making major purchases until they have a new contract. That affects financial institutions that make loans for vehicles and houses as well as businesses that sell cars, furniture and appliances.

Williams may be contacted at or (208) 848-2261.

Recommended for you