Paper workers deal with death on the job

PITTSBURGH - Jon Maus' name may not have specifically come up at the bargaining conference in mid-July of the Steelworkers' paperworker members, but his horrifying death did. Maus, 50, of Albany, Minn., died in a two-day explosion and fire May 28-29 at the Verso Paper mill in Sartell, Minn. He left a widow and four children. Four other workers were injured. All five were members of USW Local 274 in Minnesota.

Some 4,000 tightly wound huge rolls of paper burned, as the fire also emitted toxins and other chemicals. And it put the future of the century-old mill, which employs 250 workers --- even after laying off 175 last November -- in question, a common occurrence in the paper industry. The mill is the town's second-largest employer.

For the 500 delegates in Pittsburgh, discussion of the Minnesota tragedy highlighted the continuing hazards in their industry. Combating those hazards will be a top bargaining goal when USW's Paper Sector, the 100,000-member old Paperworkers Union, starts negotiations with mill owners, including large paper manufacturers.

"Despite the fact that the industry has invested millions in programs that seem to reduce the number of injuries reported, the overall rate of fatalities and life-altering injuries appears to remain unchanged over decades," said USW Vice President Jon Geenen, the sector president.

"That is why we must focus on strengthening these efforts by engagement and innovation at all levels in every company."

Though the union criticized the paper firms on safety, it works with them on other public policy issues, and on more-efficient bargaining, Geenen said. The industry appreciates that, he added.

"I'm incredibly proud that since the last conference our locals have been very disciplined in bargaining. We're definitely making progress in creating a better workplace and industry," Geenen explained.

Besides health and safety, the paper bargaining conference delegates also discussed further development of "a disciplined collective bargaining agenda and policy," increasing their sector's activity in global worker networks, increasing council-based organizing to bring "free riders" into the union, and "developing and strengthening our voice in both the political and legislative arenas," the union said.

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