US and South African workers unite against paper conglomerate

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America’s United Steelworkers union (USW) and the South African Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood & Allied Workers Union (CEPPWAWU) have pledged mutual support in meeting their members’ needs, achieving mutual goals and taking concrete steps to change Sappi’s labour practices.

Sappi, Ltd. (known during the Apartheid era as South African Pulp & Paper Industries, Ltd.), is a paper company based in the Republic of South Africa, and operating plants in South Africa, Europe and the United States

‘We’re bound and determined to change how Sappi treats its workers, and that takes global solidarity among its unions,’ said USW President Leo W Gerard.

‘Our solidarity will show Sappi that it’s far more beneficial to work with us than against us.

‘Together, we could help the company meet the competitive demands of the paper industry that it’s putting at risk by its anti-worker practices.’

Instead of negotiating fair contracts at each of its US facilities in Westbrook and Skowhegan, Maine, Muskegon, Michigan, and Cloquet, Minnesota, Sappi is resisting the USW’s demands for decent wages and benefits for all Sappi employees.

At some locations, Sappi is actually demanding concessions in health care, pensions and pay.

In South Africa, the CEPPWAWU is fighting for greater access to better jobs at Sappi.

The company is failing to train blue-collar workers for higher skilled jobs, and is showing an unwillingness to hire black workers for positions requiring greater skill or responsibility.

In addition, it has refused to equalise salaries between managers and workers and recognise the union as the bargaining agent for maintenance and white-collar workers.

Sappi also is trying to impose a health and safety model that takes a ‘blame the worker’ approach across all of its facilities in North America, southern Africa and Europe.

‘Sappi has a choice to make: It can either work with us to help improve its profit position, or it can continue down the path it’s on and struggle for survival,’ said Dick LaCosse, USW international vice president and head of the union’s national paper bargaining programme.

The USW represents over 1,300 workers at Sappi’s four mills and a paper converting and distribution facility in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Total USW membership numbers 850,000 workers, and the union represents employees in industries ranging from pulp and paper to steel and aluminum, oil, chemical, pharmaceutical and health care.

A ‘joint statement of the United Steel, Paper & Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial & Service Workers International Union (USW) and Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood & Allied Workers Union (CEPPWAWU)’ said: ‘Throughout the world ruthless corporations scheme to reduce the living standards of workers wherever they set up operations.

‘Regardless of their base of operations these entities have no concern for family or community or country; they have only one loyalty – money.

‘One such company is Sappi, Ltd.

‘Sappi has in many ways disgraced itself with its shameful treatment of workers on all three continents.

‘Our two unions represent the majority of Sappi’s blue-collar workers in the United States and South Africa.

‘In South Africa, Sappi has persisted with echoes of South Africa’s racist past, failing in its obligation to train blue-collar workers for higher skilled jobs, and continues an unwillingness to hire black workers for positions requiring greater skill or having higher responsibility.

‘Sappi has refused to equalise salaries between managers and workers, and has refused to accept the union’s representation of maintenance and white-collar workers, in spite of the wishes of these workers to join CEPPWAWU.

‘In the United States, Sappi tries to cut into the health benefits and pension rights of workers, and continues its attempt to cut workers’ take-home pay.

‘It persists in trying to offer different terms of agreement to USW members at different mills, in spite of the workers’ clear common interest.

‘All over the world Sappi works to impose a failed health and safety model on the workers.

‘Because of Sappi’s unwillingness to work constructively with workers, it is unable to be successful on its own terms – it is more and more unable to turn a profit.

‘In North America, Sappi suffers from high turnover at all levels of the corporation. Everywhere, Sappi’s unfair tactics and high-handed ways make it difficult for the workers who remain.

‘For these reasons our two unions pledge strong mutual support in our efforts to meet the needs of our members at Sappi, and pledge to take strong concrete steps at all levels of our unions to realise our mutual goals and to change Sappi’s harmful practices.’

Members of the unions affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions were mobilised for a general strike on Thursday, 18 May.

Millions took to the streets of South Africa to support the COSATU Jobs and Poverty Campaign.

COSATU says: ‘Levels of unemployment and poverty in South Africa are totally unacceptable, and the poverty this causes is inflicting misery on millions of families.

‘We are repeating our call for the crisis of joblessness to be declared a national emergency and for government and business to take far tougher measures to save and create jobs and to eradicate poverty.

‘At a time when we are told the economy is booming, it is disgusting that so many of our citizens are living in abject poverty, primarily because they cannot find work, or have to survive in low-paid, insecure, temporary jobs.

‘We are also highlighting the new threat to our jobs and living standards posed by the draft WTO agreements on non-agricultural market access and services, which, unless drastically amended, will have a catastrophic impact on jobs and living standards in South Africa and other developing countries in the southern half of the world.’

SACTWU, the largest union in fashion manufacturing called on its 110,000 members to support the call for a national strike, and called on ‘the public to show solidarity with some of the lowest paid workers in manufacturing’ demonstrating against job losses.

The union said: ‘Workers eke out a living on less than R100 a day in many parts of the country and yet jobs continue to be lost through the increasing tendency of retailers to import.’

The country’s largest metalworkers’ union, NUMSA, is squared up in the Eastern Cape with Daimler Chrysler South Africa and leather seat manufacturer Johnson Controls SA, among others, in protest against alleged retrenchments threats of 320 workers and plans to relocate both companies to Germany and North America, respectively.

NUMSA in KwaZulu-Natal has singled out Mittal in Newcastle, Bell Equipment in Richards Bay and Daimler Chrysler warehouse in Pinetown, among others, as rallying centres of protest action to demand an end to reported racial practices by management, ill-treatment and sacking of union shop stewards.

Teachers’ union SADTU slammed ‘the continuing jobs bloodbath and resulting mass poverty’.

It said: ‘Four out of ten workers are unemployed. This places a huge burden on those who remain in employment to support, on average, eight dependents.’