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Smurfit strike to enter 2nd week
[December 06, 2008]

Smurfit strike to enter 2nd week

(St. Joseph News-Press Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Dec. 6--David Gwinn, Ron John and Bill Hanway have spent decades inside Smurfit-Stone Container, working to support their families. Now, one hand clasped to a wooden stake and another keeping warm next to a fire, the men talk with each other, just trying to survive another day.

About 86 workers went on strike Monday after union members rejected a third contract offer from the company. Now, a week's worth of cold is leaving lips chapped and cheeks flushed, but hope has kept many warm on the picket lines outside the Lower Lake Road plant. This is the first strike at the plant in more than 30 years of operation and representation by the union.

"This is the first management team we've had that didn't regard us as people," Mr. Gwinn said. The current plant manager, Charlie Lau, came to the facility in October 2007, according to Nathan Hayes, a member of the negotiating committee.

Employees said they will be on strike around the clock in shifts until an agreement is made.

Members of the community have strong opinions regarding the strike. A story published earlier in the week by the News-Press received more than 450 comments on the paper's Web site.

On Friday, tensions on the picket line became so heated that the St. Joseph Police Department had to get involved.

St. Joseph Police Department Capt. Janice Rothganger said the police were called when a security guard for Smurfit got into a verbal dispute that turned physical when a picketer alledgedly hit him in the groin and another person hit him in the chin with a picket sign.

Two suspects were identified but no arrests have been made, Ms. Rothganger said.

There have been signs of community support as the strike heads into its second week. Some members of the public have gone to ground zero, bringing food, warm drinks or even firewood to keep the strikers warm and full.

On Tuesday, the workers received letters that their insurance policies had been canceled. By Thursday, they found out they wouldn't be getting their holiday pay. Employees have been working without a contract since March, and in September, union members voted to authorize a strike if a deal could not be reached.

"We're not a bunch of crybabies," Mr. Hayes said. "We just want 2 percent across the board. That's what the other plants got. Why shouldn't we?"

The company maintains it has done everything it can. Mike Mullin, a company spokesman, had said Smurfit was disappointed that the workers decided to strike. "We believe (the proposal) was fair and responsive to our employees' needs," he said.

While the outdoor picketing has been brutal, none of the workers who were interviewed have regrets.

"There's a time you have to take a stand," said Sandy Hillman, whose husband also works at the plant. "We still have hope."

The St. Joseph location is currently being staffed by salaried employees as well as employees from other plant locations. Smurfit manufactures cardboard boxes at the factory.

Jennifer Hall can be reached at Andrew Gaug contributed to this story. He can be reached at

To see more of the St. Joseph News-Press or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to

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