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Millworker delivers message at State of the Union address

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Trade in America — Laid-off WestRock millworker Steve Phillips travels to Washington, D.C., as a guest of Rep. Peter DeFazio


When Steve Phillips was laid off from the WestRock mill in November, he knew the drill. It wasn’t his first time working at a mill that got shut down – it was his third.

Phillips spent 30 years working at a mill in North Bend, before it was shut down and he moved to a mill in Albany. After six years that facility sold and was shut down in 2009. Both of those closures were certified for trade act assistance, which is applicable when a closure can be tied to foreign trade impacts.

Philips began working at the Newberg mill, then S.P. Newsprint, in November 2010. Since then there have been layoffs from time to time, particularly as the mill converted one of its paper machines to produce kraft paper products instead of newsprint. There was a sense that the mill was going to become profitable once again.

So when WestRock Co. bought the mill last August, many at the mill took it as a good sign of the facility’s viability.SUBMITTED PHOTO - Sending a message - Former Newberg millworker Steve Phillips (right), who was laid off in November, joined Rep. Peter DeFazio at the State of the Union address at the White House last week as an example of the negative impact of ‘free trade deals.'

“We were looking really forward to the future,” Phillips said.

Then came October and the familiar announcement: just a couple months after the sale, the mill would effectively shut down and leave 200-plus workers jobless.

But for Phillips, this shutdown was different in one respect: it led to an invitation to the State of the Union address at the White House.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, whose district includes Phillips’ home area of North Bend, has been a vocal opponent of trade deals such as the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, and has tied such policies to the closure of domestic manufacturing facilities.

When he learned Phillips’ story of being displaced three times, with two of the three mill closures receiving trade act certification and the Newberg petition still pending, Phillips’ experience was a clear illustration of the problems DeFazio points out in trade policies.

“We’ve heard over and over again how free trade deals are supposed to benefit Americans, but Steve knows first-hand the catastrophic impact that decades of failed trade policies have had on the American worker,” DeFazio said in a release.

Phillips offered such a clear picture of the problems at work, DeFazio extended an invitation for the laid-off millworker to join the congressman at the State of the Union address last week.

The connection DeFazio draws between free trade deals and job loss was nothing new for Phillips, who said just the confidentiality with which the TPP was negotiated raised red flags for him.

“Even though I wasn’t intimately knowledgeable about the details about it, I was familiar with it, I knew about it and of course another trade act to me is just poison,” Phillips said. “You don’t have to explain the details to me, I’ve already seen the effects of the last one (NAFTA).”

So he flew out to Washington, D.C., for three days, a fast-paced trip but one that he felt delivered the message he and DeFazio hoped to convey.

DeFazio told Phillips’ story at a large press conference at the Rayburn House Office Building with a slew of lawmakers present. Later Phillips met with the political director of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, which acts as a governing body for a number of unions, including the AWPPW.

Later Phillips got a taste of the political high life as he made his way with other attendees through underground tunnels to an open house hosted by Nancy Pelosi.

“I just mingled around and acted like somebody important,” Phillips laughed.

Then came the address itself, which Phillips said was interesting to watch given all the standing ovations and which groups stand up for which topics.

He was surprised by the brief mention President Obama gave the TPP, given the attention that’s been placed on it and the way it’s been described as a potential legacy for Obama.

“I thought it was going to be the showcase event of the evening,” Phillips said. “He barely gave it a paragraph or two.”

Meanwhile, the AWPPW’s application for trade act assistance is still under review, but union vice president Greg Palleson said he is 99 percent certain the Newberg closure will be certified – for the past 15 years in the paper industry virtually every organization that has experienced downsizing or a complete closure has qualified for the trade act benefits, Palleson explained.

“This is not an anomaly,” he said.

Palleson noted that for a region like the Portland area that prides itself on prioritizing recycling habits, people might be surprised to learn that 70 percent of their recycled paper goes overseas to places like China where it’s made into boxes and other paper packaging products.

“China is scouring the earth for natural resources and fiber when it comes to making paper,” he said, adding that the low cost of labor in China – top papermakers make about $1.90 an hour, he said – means foreign businesses can pay more for recovered paper products. “These corporate entities don’t have any allegiance to Newberg. It’s all about short-term profits.”

Palleson, who was contacted by DeFazio and helped connect him with Phillips, calls on other politicians to oppose the trade deal, including Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, whose district includes Newberg and who has not drawn such a hard line against a trade act if it’s crafted well.

Bonamici has indicated her disappointment at the Newberg mill idling and in December asked the Department of Labor to conduct a “swift review” of the AWPPW’s application for trade act certification. But Palleson said the mill workers would benefit more from policy changes.

“If she wants to help them she would vote no on the TPP,” he said.