Good on Paper: USW Members at Arkansas Factory Keep Supply Chain Moving

Donald Walker retired as a member of Local 1327 at the Domtar paper and pulp mill in Ashdown, Ark., in 2020, taking with him 47 years of experience and a desire to spend more time with his family.

Just two years later, his union siblings and Domtar management needed to call upon that knowledge again as they worked to bring one of the mill’s machines back online. Walker obliged, returning to the mill in a part-time capacity.

“I take pride in my job, and I want to see the Ashdown mill succeed,” Walker said about his interrupted retirement and latest effort to make sure the facility continues to efficiently produce top-quality USW-made paper products. “It’s all about the young people coming up. If we don’t help them, who will?”

One of those young people happens to be Walker’s son, Calep, who followed in his father’s footsteps at Domtar in 2019 after a stint working overseas.

“I’m trying to fill his shoes,” the younger Walker said.

Donald Walker said that without the good-paying union jobs at the mill, his family and hundreds of other families in the area would struggle.

“If that machine goes down,” he said, gesturing toward his work station, “Ashdown goes down.”

Community Pride

The dedication to hard work and community solidarity that Walker demonstrated with his return to work also runs deep for many other members of the three USW units in Ashdown.

Local 1327 Vice President Jennifer Beard works in the Domtar laboratory, testing water samples each day to ensure that the mill remains in compliance with environmental regulations. She said that the USW membership and the company share a desire to make sure that the mill, which opened in 1968, is sustainable so that it thrives for future generations of Ashdown workers.

“Whatever happens, we’re going to be there for them,” she said of her USW siblings and families in Ashdown. “Our mill keeps money flowing in this community.”

The fact that the mill is the largest employer in the county, and that the USW-represented jobs there are the best in the region, keeps that economic ripple effect going strong far beyond the plant gates, Beard said.

“These are some of the best jobs anywhere in the area,” Beard said, crediting the 53-year history of the union at the facility and its productive relationship with Domtar management. The workers at the Ashdown mill organized into the United Papermakers and Paperworkers union in 1969, not long after the mill opened its doors. Through mergers, that union became part of PACE and then, in 2005, the USW.

Across three units – the production workers of Local 1327, the maintenance workers of Local 1329, and the clerical workers of Local 1329C – the USW represents about 600 people at the Domtar mill. Those units also participate, as part of the Domtar Council, in monthly conference calls with other USW locals representing about 2,000 workers at eight other locations.

Putting Safety First

Despite anti-union laws like right-to-work (for less) in Arkansas, less than 20 workers choose to shirk their responsibility to pay dues to the USW. That unity is evident in the close-knit working relationship that union members built in Ashdown and the way they look out for each other on and off the job.

Working in an environment with enormous machines, massive rolls of paper and constantly moving parts poses potential dangers, but electrician Michael Strasner said that the USW and the company collaborate to build a culture that puts safety first.

“That is our number one priority,” Strasner said of the USW commitment to eliminating potential workplace hazards. “It’s emphasized every day.”

That’s been particularly true through the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, pointing out that, because the Domtar plant was deemed an essential workplace, the members never stayed home during the coronavirus shutdowns.

“It was tough at times,” said Local 1329 President Mike Kilgore. Still, he said, the USW worked with the company to make sure that those who were exposed to COVID and had to quarantine were able to do so without risking the loss of a paycheck.

All the while, the workers in Ashdown continued to show up each day to produce the essential goods that kept vital supply chains stocked, particularly the absorbent fluff that goes into items like toilet paper, paper towels, diapers and other personal care products.

Proud Work Force

The members in Ashdown are proud of their contributions to maintaining the nation’s supply chain of vital goods, and of their efforts to keep the mill – and the region’s economy – running even at the most difficult times.

“The Ashdown mill is one of the country’s premier pulp and paper facilities,” said International Vice President Leeann Foster, a second-generation paperworker who oversees USW bargaining in the industry. “The members at Domtar should be very proud of their hard work and solidarity that has allowed them to become leaders in the industry.”

Jennifer Houser, a 38-year employee, and Sheila Wheeler, who has worked at the mill in a variety of roles over 31 years, agreed that key to Ashdown’s success over that time has been that union leaders and members of management are responsive to each other’s concerns.

“You don’t always agree, but you have to have an open mind and listen. If you don’t do that, the company’s going to go in the hole,” Wheeler said. “It really takes both sides coming together and working together.”

A good example of that teamwork came in 2018 when Domtar, in the midst of a companywide restructuring, approached the unions at Ashdown about the need to cut spending at the facility by $2.5 million. Local 1327 President Kevin Kesterson said the company initially proposed cutting 17 jobs in the woodyard.

“That would have been a disaster,” USW member David Hibbs said. “The employees showed a lot of resilience.”

Instead of simply eliminating jobs, a committee of workers, including Hibbs, studied the operation from top to bottom, identifying areas where the company could save significant amounts of money without harming workers.

“We just changed the way we did business,” Hibbs said, explaining that, as a result of a series of small changes, the Ashdown work force was able to achieve the savings the company sought with the elimination of only six jobs, all of which came through attrition and early-retirement incentives.

Not only did they avoid layoffs, but the workers eventually received hourly wage increases as a result of the cost-cutting effort, Kesterson said.

The ‘Timber Basket’

In addition to teamwork, another reason for the mill’s long-term success is geography. Ashdown and its surrounding area, where the southwest corner of Arkansas meets Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, is at the heart of what Local 1329 Vice President Patrick Montgomery calls “the timber basket,” which offers tremendous natural resources for pulp and paper companies.

Arkansas has 19 million acres of forest, where loblolly pine trees are plentiful. That unique timber provides a particularly soft wood, Montgomery said, making it perfect for the absorbent fluff that workers create in Ashdown.

Besides the workers at the Domtar mill, the USW also represents papermakers at the Graphic Packaging mill in nearby Texarkana, as well as at a nearby paper warehouse. In addition, there are at least five other USW-represented paper facilities in Arkansas, and several others not far away in Louisiana and Oklahoma.

The Ashdown mill alone brings in between 400 and 500 log trucks each day, which carry a total of 9,000 to 11,000 tons of wood, from which the workers create Domtar’s extensive lineup of products.

As part of Domtar’s dedication to sustainability, “for each tree they take, they plant new trees,” Beard said. 

The workers grind the wood into a pulp mixture that contains a large amount of water. Using massive machines, they squeeze the water from the pulp and gradually dry it out and form it into sheets. As the process continues, those sheets are adjusted for size, thickness and smoothness, depending on what the final product is destined to become. Rolls of finished paper are then either shipped directly to customers or converted into other products like office and printer paper.

At top capacity, the factory churns out more than 900 reams of paper per minute.

From the wood to the warehouse, workers are at the forefront, making sure machines run smoothly and that the final products meet Domtar’s quality-control standards.

As reams of office paper roll off the converter lines, USW members like Michael Martin conduct periodic audits to inspect the sheets for defects like wrinkles or discoloration, and then make the necessary adjustments.

“The quality of our paper determines the longevity of this mill,” Martin said.

In the end, the longevity of the mill means job security for USW members and economic security for their families and neighbors, Kesterson said.

The Next Generation

Eugene Crenshaw has worked at the mill for 52 years and served for 20 years as a union guard, and he has no plans to retire. As he looks to the future, he said, the most important task facing the members in Ashdown is to keep strengthening the USW’s solidarity so that the good jobs at Domtar are still there for the next generation of workers.

“This mill has made me what I am,” Crenshaw said.

In order for that to continue for decades to come, members must make sure that workers coming behind them understand all of the benefits that the union has fought for and won over the years, he said.

Educating and mentoring the next generation of paperworkers is a mission that Kesterson, Kilgore and other USW leaders in Ashdown are embracing.

“We can’t do anything without our members,” Kilgore said. “They are the future of this mill.”

With that future in mind, Beard is working with the state labor federation to develop outreach programs to educate local school children about the careers they can build in the paper industry and in other manufacturing jobs.

“The USW mills in this area offer workers a chance to support families, to build communities, and to retire with dignity,” said District 13 Director Larry Burchfield. “That is all possible because of the strength and solidarity of the union membership.”

The local USW hall, which the three units share, is decorated with photos, plaques and other memorabilia from the union’s earliest days. Each summer, the union workers and their families gather for a picnic to build solidarity and community spirit. The members also gather at the hall for regular charity drives to raise money for a host of local causes. And, in its most recent agreement with Domtar, Beard said, the USW was able to win contract language that established a labor-management diversity committee.

All of those initiatives are intended to ensure that the mill, and its good USW jobs, are there to support the people of Ashdown for years to come.

“There’s no other place around that offers this kind of quality of life,” Houser said. “That’s the union difference.”

Press Inquiries

Media Contacts

Communications Director:
Jess Kamm at 412-562-6961

USW@WORK (USW magazine)
Editor R.J. Hufnagel

For industry specific inquiries,
Call USW Communications at 412-562-2442

Mailing Address

United Steelworkers
Communications Department
60 Blvd. of the Allies
Pittsburgh, PA 15222