UPM Blandin Paper Company workers begin strike
Grand Rapids, MN – At 6 a.m., July 15, around 200 members of Teamsters Local 346 walked off their jobs at the UPM Blandin Paper Company and began a strike. Grand Rapids gets its name because it sits along the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota. The UPM Blandin paper plant was built in its location on the edge of the river to use the river to power its paper mill. The plant has been an established feature of the town’s economy since its founding in 1901. Now, for the first time in the history of the plant its workers have gone on strike.
When workers were asked why they decided to go on strike, some of the main issues they raised were around bargaining for higher wages, staff retention, and to get rid of a two-tier benefit system under which workers are not eligible for benefits until they have worked at the company for five years, and receive lower pay, which the union members say leads to high turnover, forced overtime, and dangerous conditions.
Striking workers also pointed to having vacations approved and then cancelled even after they have bought their plane tickets and booked lodging. According to the workers’ speeches on the picket line the company has been totally unwilling to negotiate for solutions. They said that the two-tier system and lack of fair wage increases has been demoralizing and they felt like they have been moving backwards.
Teamster members said they felt that the company had not moved in bargaining and was dragging their feet through the entire bargaining process in an attempt to stall the union workers out while the union was attempting to bargain in good faith. The Teamsters contract has been expired since July 1, so the union members gave them company two weeks to come up with better proposals before beginning the strike on July 15.
On the picket line, speakers could be heard saying that this is an important fight for the whole labor movement and that they wanted to thank the community, who they say has been highly supportive of their fight. The workers appeared highly united around the need to eliminate the two-tier system and not let it divide them.
As the Teamsters began their strike on Saturday, union members said that they had been told that a two week-long strike was likely but later the company stated that they expected negotiations to resume on Tuesday, July 18. The Teamsters are ready to remain on strike and keep fighting until their demands are met.