Striking UPM Blandin paper mill workers rally in Grand Rapids

DFL lawmakers join workers, union leadership

By: - July 22, 2023 8:54 am

State Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, fires up the crowd Friday, July 21, 2023, at a rally for striking UPM Blandin paper mill workers in Grand Rapids. Behind Lislegard is state Sen. Grand Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown. Photo by Lorie Shaull.

GRAND RAPIDS — Fiery speeches drowned out the honks of passing motorists as hundreds of striking UPM Blandin workers and supporters gathered for a rally Friday.

“I swear to goodness I saw the most American thing I’ve seen in the past 10 years happen today,” said Zak Radzak, secretary-treasurer for the Teamsters Local No. 346. “There was a man walking across the street with a picket sign on his shoulder. And that is America, boys and girls, that is what this country was founded on.”

Mill workers walked off the job nearly a week ago after voting to strike amid contract negotiations. This is the first strike ever authorized by Teamsters union members at the mill, which has been a major employer and central feature of the city of Grand Rapids since 1901. It’s also one of the largest suppliers of magazine and catalog paper in North America.

Parties met for contract negotiations again Thursday, but a company spokesperson called the two offers “fundamentally different.”

“We are now going to take the time to review both proposals and consider potential paths to finding an agreement,” UPM Blandin statement said in a statement Thursday. “The Company remains engaged in and committed to the bargaining process. We are hopeful we can move forward and reach an agreement when negotiations resume.”

Paper mill leadership proposed to resume talks on Aug. 2. The mill will likely remain shuttered until an agreement is reached.

More than 165 members of Teamsters Local No. 346 are on strike, or 80% of the plant’s workforce. Teamsters Union President Jeff Oveson said workers are demanding better wages, elimination of a two-tier system of benefits for newer employees and changes to staffing levels.

Spiking overtime hours are leading to dangerous working conditions for overtired production workers, Oveson said. Employees are also frustrated by the recent history of reductions in the mill’s production, he said. Workers vowed to remain on strike for as long as it takes.

UPM Blandin has not addressed any specific claims made by the union.

At Friday’s rally, younger employees and families gathered alongside longtime mill workers, including 44-year-old Chris Rychart of Grand Rapids. Rychart is a millwright in the paper roll shop at UPM Blandin.

He said a two-tier wage and benefit system — to which the union originally agreed in 2016 — that places newer workers at lower wages and benefits means some of his coworkers struggle to pay the bills.

“They’re making less than I was when I started here back 17 years ago,” Rychart said.

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, the average annual wage for paper manufacturing jobs in 2022 was about $82,250, or about 18% higher than the Minnesota average. Union officials have declined to provide specifics about what UPM Blandin employees make in either tier or how much of a raise they’re seeking.

State Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown and Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, were there to show solidarity with the striking workers.

Lislegard was once a steelworker himself in Hoyt Lakes and said politics don’t matter when it comes to workers’ rights.

“I don’t care if you’re Democrat, Republican, you voted for Trump, you voted for Biden. I don’t give a (expletive),” Lislegard said. “The point is, is that you’re standing right here in solidarity. You’re standing here, across the region. I don’t represent you as a legislator. I represent you as brothers and sisters in the labor movement.”

Lislegard encouraged the workers to not break the strike without the company meeting their demands.

Hauschild said the mill workers are part of a national labor movement making waves in Minnesota and across the nation. He pointed to an impending UPS strike, those at hospitals and workers at Cleveland Cliffs’ Northshore Mining Co., which unionized this week after multiple previous attempts.

“We are having a union moment in this state and in this country, and you guys are a part of it,” Hauschild said. “And what we need these folks to understand — you know, the further, the bigger these corporations grow, the bigger these organizations grow, the more disconnected they get from the reality of what’s going on at the ground level. (Expletive) doesn’t move without the Teamsters. … Paper doesn’t move, trucks don’t move. You guys move it.”

Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, also visited with striking workers, who have maintained a 24-hour presence on the streets.

Teachers and government government workers also joined the picket line Friday.

Christopher Worth, 51, is the president of AFSCME Local 1626, which represents Itasca County Courthouse employees.

“All the unions, they really need to stick together when they have these labor issues.” Worth said. “Because it’s not just affecting the Blandin employees, it’s going to be affecting all the employees in this area.”

History of contraction

Today’s UPM Blandin workforce of 230 is about one-quarter of what it was at the turn of the century.

Duluth-based Business North reported total employment at the mill was 900 in 2000. In 2003, the company shuttered two paper machines, cutting about 300 positions and leaving about 500 on staff. This represented half of the original workforce at the time of the 1997 purchase of the mill by Helsinki, Finland-based UPM-Kymmene.

Weeks after that announcement, the Teamsters Local No. 346 authorized a strike, although it never materialized.

In 2008, UPM Blandin counted about 400 workers, according to a Business North story outlining the union’s new four-year contract.

In October 2017, the company announced the permanent shutdown of another one of its machines, resulting in the elimination of 150 jobs. The closure was in response to overcapacity in the North American paper market, the company told Business North at the time.

According to DEED, jobs in paper manufacturing declined by 43% from 2002 to 2022 — a loss of 2,419 jobs. Of those lost, 518 occurred since 2019, just before the pandemic through the end of last year. The state agency also forecast another roughly 12% job loss through 2030.

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Chelsey Perkins
Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins spent the first 15 years of her journalism career as a print journalist, primarily as a newspaper reporter and editor. She's now news director of KAXE in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, where she's building the first local newsroom based at the station in its 47 years.