A common question people are asked during labor disputes is “which side are you on?” State Representative Debbie Wood, R-Valley, did not even have to be asked this question amid a labor dispute involving nearly 500 workers at a WestRock paper mill in Cottonton, Alabama.
She made her allegiance clear: “I am very much on the side of management.”
Management locked out the workers on Thursday, Oct. 6 because they wouldn’t ratify a contract that did not include long-held penalties against overwork.
Specifically, WestRock’s contract proposal removed time and a half on Sundays (which turned into double time if the worker was over 40 hours for the week) and what’s known in the industry as “Hog Law,” a contract provision stating that if a shift goes over 16 hours, the worker will get time and a half for the whole shift.
For the workers, taking out protections that have always been in their contracts is the key reason they voted down the contract. They say that they are already being made to work far beyond their standard shifts, and that if these penalties are taken out, it will give the company even more room to overwork their employees instead of properly staffing.
In addition to concerns about overwork, the union estimates that removing these provisions would amount to a 10 percent reduction in pay.
Meanwhile, WestRock’s revenue for 2021 was almost $19 billion, and its gross profit for the same year was $3.43 billion. The CEO of WestRock, David Sewell, received a compensation package of over $21 million in 2021, including a $1.5 million bonus. Executive compensation at WestRock is up 53 percent from last year.
Wood said she is supporting management because the WestRock plant in her district is dependent on the work product from the Cottonton mill: “if that plant does not operate, then neither does the plant in Lanett, Alabama, and my people go hungry.”
“Alabama is an at-will state, companies have the choice to demand that their workers work the schedule that best suits them,” she said. Asked if she thinks the only way for the plant in Lynette to continue to operate is that WestRock takes from Cottonton, she disputed that characterization: “They’re not taking from Cottonton.”
Wood represents a district just north of the Cottonton, Alabama mill. State Rep. Berry Forte, D-Eufala, represents the district containing the mill. Efforts to reach him, as well as State Rep. Jeremy Gray, D-Opelika; State Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee; State Rep. Joe Lovvorn, R-Auburn; State Sen. Bill Beasley, D-Clayton; State Sen. Jay Hovey, R-Auburn; State Sen. Randy Price, R-Opelika; District 7 Russell County Commissioner Larry Screws, D-Hurtsboro; District 5 Russell County Commissioner Cattie Epps, D-Phenix City; District 4 Russell County Commissioner Ronnie Reed, D-Phenix City; and District 3 Russell County Commissioner Rod Costello, R-Phenix City, were unsuccessful.
State Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Phenix City, said he has “not been involved” with the situation.
District 1 Russell County Commissioner Gentry Lee, R-Phenix City, had no comment because he doesn’t “like to get involved in company’s private squabbles with their employees.”
District 2 Russell County Commissioner Scott Chambers, R-Phenix City, said that he has no comment on the situation due to his lack of familiarity. When asked if he has any interest in getting familiar with the situation, he said “not really.”
District 6 Russell County Commissioner Chance Corbett, R-Phenix City, said that he has several friends and constituents that work at the mill and hope the situation can be resolved amicably, though he doesn’t feel comfortable “taking a position” about how that ought to happen. Corbett mentioned that WestRock is the beneficiary of tax abatements from 40 years ago, though he doesn’t know if the Commission could take those away because of this dispute.