IP mum on talks with mill unions

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 22, 2000

All seven union locals at International Paper’s Natchez Mill are meeting with management to negotiate a new contract this week — but no one’s talking about the specifics.

Union and management officials on the negotiating team have decided to negotiate “only at the bargaining table,”&160;said a statement released Tuesday by Lillie DeShields, communications director for the mill.

“No information will be shared with the media or the community until such information has been shared with all employees, and then only if members of the team agree that it is in the best interest of the entire group.”

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The mill, which currently employs 750 people, is the largest employer in an area with few large industries. “A successful resolution is important, certainly considering the number of jobs they represent in this area,”&160;said Wally Kirk, president of the Natchez-Adams County Economic Development Authority.

Unions at the mill include three locals of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union; two of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; and one each of the International Association of Machinists and the International Union of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry.

The last time a contract was negotiated at the mill was 1994. Contracts are not being renegotiated throughout the entire company, said Jack Cox, IP national spokesman. “That is done facility by facility,” he said.

Each company and each union conducts contract negotiations differently. But such talks are usually very businesslike affairs, with officials from both sides meeting the first day to set ground rules for the talks, such as the days and hours they wish to meet, said Leo “T-Bone” Bradley, president of United Steelworkers of America Local 303L.

Both sides then discuss the existing contract section by section, deciding which parts they can still live with and which they wish to change.

“The union may have certain issues they want to discuss, like wages and benefits,” Bradley said. The company then computes how much it would cost to satisfy the union’s requests, and both sides work together to find a solution.

For the IP mill, the talks come at a time when cutbacks at the plant have made headlines. As a result of a reduction in market demand for dissolving pulp, 88 workers were laid off and several pieces of equipment were shut down in the first three quarters of 1999, according to documents from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Still, many analysts see International Paper as a good buy, said Sterling Barbour, a broker with A.G. Edwards and Sons in Jackson, which follows the industry.

When IP announced it would lay off 2,000 more employees company-wide in January, the company’s stock immediately fell from $60 a share to almost $40.

Still, paper products sector as a whole saw stocks fall more than 20 percent, largely due to rising interest rates and inflation worries, Barbour said.

And it is believed that cutbacks at IP will strengthen the company, he said. “The reason they have made cuts is so they can have more profit,” he added. “All the stuff I’ve read says that analysts are high on that stock at this time. It’s still a good company.”

International Paper’s third-quarter 1999 net sales were $6.25 million, ahead of about $6 million in the 1999 second quarter. Third-quarter earnings were $192 million, an increase of $92 million ($.22 per share) over second-quarter 1999.