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Willamette Industries workers protest Weyerhaeuser invasion
By DON McINTOSH, Staff Reporter
Stepping out of town cars and cabs onto Southwest Park Avenue in Portland, Willamette Industries stockholders in business suits scaled a short flight of stairs to enter the Portland Art Museum, a windowless former Masonic lodge, site of the company's momentous June 7 annual meeting.
But first they had to pass a gauntlet of picket signs, borne not only by Willamette's union workers but by its office workers and middle management, united in opposing a long-running hostile takeover bid by Weyerhaeuser Corp. When Weyerhaeuser chief executive officer Steven Rogel arrived, flanked by a phalanx of over a dozen corporate assistants, the protesters greeted him with boos and shouts of "Go away."
At the annual meeting, stockholders voted on whether to approve three Weyerhaeuser nominees for seats on Willamette's nine-member board of directors. Weyerhaeuser declared it had enough votes, but Willamette insisted the vote was too close to call. The results won't be available until a vote-tallying company issues a report later this month.
If Weyerhaeuser wins, it would still be one annual meeting away from having a majority on the board; yet, management of both companies portrayed the June 7 vote as a referendum on the takeover. If Weyerhaeuser loses the vote, it has pledged to withdraw its hostile takeover offer; if it wins, Willamette management may negotiate a surrender.
Willamette Industries, based in Portland, is the world's seventh-largest forest products company, with $4.6 billion in annual sales, 105 mills in the U.S., France, Ireland and Mexico, and 1.7 million acres of forestland in the United States.
Weyerhaeuser, based in Federal Way, Wash., is the world's third largest forest products company, with $16 billion in annual sales, operations in 17 countries, and 47,000 employees.
For three years, Willamette management has rejected a Weyerhaeuser takeover bid, and seven months ago Weyerhaeuser took its offer directly to the shareholders, with an offer to buy them out at $50 a share.
Willamette chief executive officer Duane McDougall predicts a takeover would lead to the loss of 500 jobs at Willamette's Portland headquarters, with a ripple effect on area law firms, temporary employment agencies, insurance brokers and suppliers of office equipment, industrial materials and machine parts. Oregon would lose one of its two Fortune 500 companies, leaving only Nike as the last major international corporation based in Oregon.
The Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers (AWPPW) has a collective bargaining history with both companies, and it favors Willamette in the merger dispute.
The union has been able to negotiate much better deals at Willamette. Don Gregor, president of AWPPW Local 3, said his members at Willamette's Albany, Ore., paper mill earn $2 to $4 an hour more than their Weyerhaeuser counterparts, for the same work and level of experience.
Six months ago, AWPPW was picketing at Willamette headquarters in protest of the company's refusal to offer union workers a 401(k) retirement plan. The company relented, with the result that union workers at three facilities in Louisiana and Tennessee represented by the Steelworkers Union and the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE) now enjoy a 401(k) as well as a traditional defined benefit plan.
Weyerhaeuser, on the other hand, earned a fresh batch of union bitterness June 1 when it announced nearly 300 layoffs following a three-and-a-half week strike by 1,300 pulp and paper workers at mills in Springfield and North Bend, Ore., and Longview and Cosmopolis, Wash. AWPPW members approved a new contract May 31 after receiving assurances that no layoffs were planned. They were set to discuss return-to-work schedules the following day, but instead were told of the layoffs (140 at Springfield and 95 at Longview) because of "poor market conditions."
"We think it signals that the 'New Weyerhaeuser' is a ruthless, untrustworthy company," said AWPPW President Len Roberts.
Across the street from the Willamette board meeting, a dozen and a half of the laid-off Springfield workers held vigil behind a banner that read "Willamette Industries: Guess what's in store for you."
"Their word's no good," said Bert Henderson, president of AWPPW Local 677, which represents workers at the Weyerhaeuser Springfield mill. Henderson and others wore baseball caps reading "Whorehauser," with an upraised middle finger in place of the company's tree logo. Henderson said his laid-off co-workers, who were earning on average $22 an hour, don't know if they'll ever be recalled.
Larry Morgan, area representative for AWPPW in Oregon and Idaho, predicted that the layoffs at Longview and Springfield will be only the tip of the iceberg if the buyout of Willamette succeeds.