Alanna Madden

LONGVIEW, Wash. (CN) — Timber giant Weyerhaeuser has found itself in hot water with unionized employees for the first time in 36 years, as over 1,100 union workers have walked off the job in 14 locations across Washington state and Oregon over low wage increases, increased health premiums and cut vacation time.

Friday marked the 11th day of the strike and Weyerhaeuser — once described as a local, family-focused company — may be waiting its workers out.

“We’re striking for better health care and, of course, better wages,” said Alfred Hendricks, a Weyerhaeuser electrician among hundreds of Longview, Washington, employees who have been striking outside the facility day and night since Sept. 13.

“The company's been reporting $1.9 billion in profit the past two years, and we're looking just to get a small increase,” Hendricks said, citing Weyerhaeuser’s self-described “record net earnings” in 2021, which are actually larger than Hendricks reports. In a January press release, Weyerhaeuser reported “record net earning of $2.6 billion, or $3.47 per diluted share, on net sales of $10.2 billion” — roughly a 226% increase from its “net earnings of $797 million on net sales of $7.5 billion for the full year of 2020.”

But despite a record-breaking year of profits, Weyerhaeuser hasn't negotiated a contract with its unionized employees, who range from sawmill workers and log yard scalers to mechanical loggers and log truck drivers — all of which have been working under expired contracts since May 31.

“Meanwhile, they're distributing millions of dollars of dividends to their shareholders,” said Hendricks, who also noted Weyerhaeuser no longer provides its employees with shares of the company.

On Thursday, the union bargaining team for the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers of District W24 met with Weyerhaeuser to negotiate for the second time since declaring the strike. However, the company has refused to change its “best and final” offer from Sept. 12, which offers a 5% wage increase at the expense of increased health care premiums.

“They want us to pay part of our medical premiums for our plans, which we've never done,” Hendricks said. “Last contract, they got rid of our Nelson Trust, our main health care system that we paid into. And now we're on one of the high-deductible ones that cost a little more out of pocket when we want to get treated for anything.”

Adding insult to injury, employees say Weyerhaeuser’s offer cuts into their vacation days. The timber company refutes this claim and says the contract has been misportrayed to the public.

“The core of what we are offering includes competitive hourly wage increases over four years,” Weyerhaeuser said in a statement. “No cuts to vacation schedules, and in fact improved vacation schedules for employees with fewer than 12 years of service.”

Additionally, Weyerhaeuser insists employee retirement benefits will remain intact, including pension benefits for eligible employees. But as for health care premiums, the company says they are not asking for anything outside of the norm for other Weyerhaeuser employees in the U.S.

“We have offered to pay 97% of the health care premium, with employees responsible for only 3% to start,” Weyerhaeuser said. “This amounts to about $17 per month for single employees and about $46 per month for employees with families. We believe this is more than fair, and the breadth and quality of coverage available through our health care plan remains unchanged.”

Even so, District W24 workers are prepared to continue striking until Weyerhaeuser offers a better deal.

“We strongly believe in what we're fighting for, and we'll support all of our union members to the day that we actually can get a fair contract,” chargehand Brad Treichel said. “Skilled labor is not cheap and cheap labor is not skilled.”

The union's presiding directing business representative, Brandon Bryant, said of the failed negotiations, “We are incredibly disappointed that Weyerhaeuser was unwilling to provide a different offer to our members, than the one our members have already overwhelmingly rejected.

“There seems to continue to be delays, ineffectiveness, and lack of urgency from this multibillion-dollar company. The company’s next availability is next Friday, and we hope that Weyerhaeuser will do the right thing. Until then, our members will continue to be on strike, continue to stand up for themselves, continue the fight against corporate greed, and continue to not settle for less," Bryant said.

Treichel believes Weyerhaeuser is trying to wait the strikers out.

“They're only losing money here in Washington and Oregon,” Treichel said. “So, I think that as long as they can make a little bit and keep their stock prices up, that they're going to try to wait this out. Because we do have a young workforce. And everything, the cost of living is really expensive now, so it's really hard to be able to save up, to keep your savings kind of where you can live for two, three months without working. So, if they can hold out for that long, I think that they probably think that they're going to be forced to come back to work.”

If Treichel’s theory holds true, a resolution may soon be around the corner. According to Oregon Business, Weyerhaeuser shares declined 1.84% on Thursday, underperforming compared to competitors Wester Fraser Timber, Canfor and PotlatchDeltic.