Alaska Pulp settles labor case

After nearly 16 years of litigation, about 95 workers to split millions

Posted: Thursday, May 15, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Some 95 ex-pulp mill workers will split $11.5 million now that the Alaska Pulp Corp. and the National Labor Relations Board have settled an unfair labor practices case stemming from a 1987 strike at the defunct Sitka plant.

After nearly 16 years of litigation, the two sides reached what the labor board calls one of the biggest settlements in its history.

Alaska Pulp Corp. will reimburse the former employees for back pay, severance, medical benefits and interest. The payouts will range from $1,700 to $324,000 per person, said Alan Berkowitz, a San Francisco attorney who represents Alaska Pulp.

"It's a good settlement all around. It was certainly time to put a very old case to bed," said Berkowitz, who has been on working on it for 15 years. "It feels like a very long gestation."

The pulp mill closed in 1993, six years after a bitter strike over wage and benefit concessions the company sought from its work force. The mill's Japanese owners hired replacements. The employees later voted the union out.

The NLRB ruled in 1989 that Alaska Pulp violated the law by refusing to reinstate strikers to their former jobs. The board found that the strikers were punished by being relegated to jobs that paid lower wages and were more susceptible to layoffs.

Alaska Pulp did not dispute the ruling, Berkowitz said, but the company and the board have been haggling ever since over how much the workers should be compensated. Full compensation would have meant an award of $14.5 million, which is what the labor board was seeking, he said.

For former millwright Florian Sever, the settlement feels like a hollow victory.

"I won't get anything tangible out of it," said Sever, who started working at the mill in 1976.

Sever, 60, will receive $209,000 but because he lost a private lawsuit against Alaska Pulp, he owes $157,000 in attorneys fees and 35 percent of the rest will go to the Internal Revenue Service, he said. Sever predicted he'll be lucky if he breaks even.

Sever, now an aircraft mechanic, said the labor board should have demanded full compensation, not 70 percent or 80 percent of what the workers are due. Alaska Pulp is getting off easy, he said.

The settlement brings an end to a lengthy dispute and provides "tangible and significant benefits" to the workers, said Arthur F. Rosenfeld, the labor board's general counsel.

Alaska Pulp was a mainstay of the Southeast economy for four decades. The factory provided high-paying, year-round jobs but the mill became a target because of pollution concerns and issues of clear-cutting.

After Alaska Pulp shut down, the Forest Service canceled its long-term timber supply, which prompted the mill's attorneys to sue for breach of contract. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled in favor of Alaska Pulp in February 2001. The company's request for more than $1 billion in damages is awaiting a judge's decision, Berkowitz said.

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