LEWISTON, Idaho (From news reports) -- Union members allege the mill manager of Clearwater Paper in Lewiston displayed a sign that read "Poor Baby's" as he drove past a Tuesday rally.
What mill manager Donnie Ely reportedly did "changed the entire tone of negotiations," between Clearwater Paper and labor organizations working on a new contract, according to a joint statement of the three union groups involved in the talks.
Clearwater Paper is aware of what occurred, company spokeswoman Shannon Myers said.
"It was an unfortunate incident and does not represent the company view of the labor negotiations or our employees," Myers said.
Hundreds of Clearwater Paper employees participated in the event along Mill Road in Lewiston, a main route to Clearwater Paper's largest manufacturing complex. It was only the second time a rally has been held during negotiations, according to the union statement.
Union members said they are worried because they have been working without a contract since their previous agreement expired Aug. 31, 2017. Pay and medical benefits are two issues that haven't been resolved as Clearwater Paper negotiates with officers of United Steelworkers Locals 608 and 712 and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 73, Myers said.
The unions represent employees who work in Clearwater Paper's operations that make pulp, paperboard for packaging and dishes, and tissue for goods like toilet paper and paper napkins.
"We are committed to negotiating an agreement that supports the long-term viability of the Lewiston mill operations and its employees," Myers said.
The rally didn't disrupt mill operations. Employees participated before or after work.
One reason employees said they were willing to spend their spare time drawing attention to the talks is their belief that Clearwater Paper is trying to create a divide between existing employees and new hires.
Clearwater Paper has proposed less robust medical benefits for people hired in the future than the ones hourly workers receive now, said Jim Johnson, a millwright for the company's tissue operations.
That disagreement was front and center at the rally. Many men and women waved placards that said "No. 2 Tier." A sign next to the road had a similar message. It read, "Selling Out New Hires Is Not Negotiating. It's Cannibalism."
Clearwater Paper's future staff members will be the children of present employees and their relatives, friends and neighbors, said Rod Allbee, who retired after working at Clearwater Paper for 36 years in a variety of positions.
Working for the company made it possible for Allbee to afford a house and braces and college educations for his two daughters. He wants those types of opportunities to continue.
"We just want this (next) generation to get a piece of the pie," he said.
Employees also are concerned because the discussions seem to be dragging.
Myers acknowledged the negotiations are taking longer than normal. But she said it's because they coincided with the plant's $160 million upgrade that included a new pulp digester and the loss of business from one of its largest tissue customers, identified by others as Kroger.
Clearwater Paper cut more than 100 positions after Kroger reduced how much it buys from the company. The same Clearwater Paper employees and union officials involved in the decisions about what jobs were eliminated also conduct the negotiations, she said.
The atmosphere at Clearwater Paper and ambiguity the company's employees are facing about how much they will earn in upcoming months is affecting other local businesses, Johnson said.
He, for example, has been waiting to replace his 19-year-old pickup truck.
"I'd almost be a fool to drop $70,000 on a pickup, not knowing where we're going with this," he said.
Talks are expected to continue today. Clearwater Paper will also release its financial results for January, February and March today.
The company finished 2018 with a $144 million loss, largely because of a $195 million noncash "goodwill impairment charge" it took for its $530 million acquisition of Cellu Tissue Holdings in 2010. Companies typically take such charges when it is more likely than not the fair market value of a reporting unit is less than its book value.
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