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Former mill workers, family members,union advocaters and others admonish Westrock

GARY ALLEN - Protestors gather before the gates to the Newberg Westrock Mill on April 24.

The gates of the former Westrock newsprint mill in Newberg set the scene for a protest April 24 about the fate of the shuttered facility and, ultimately, many of the men and women who once worked there.

The protest, organized by the union that represented the more than 200 employees laid off by Westrock when the mill was closed in January 2016, the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers (AWPPW), centered on recent news that Westrock is poised to sell the mill and the hundreds of acres of industrial land on which is sets.

Representatives from Westrock did not attend the rally and have not returned requests for comment or information made by this newspaper.

AWPPW President Gregory Pallesen said the sale of the mill is imminent and that the buyer will get the facility cheap.

"I tell you, if you have 4 million dollars cash, you can walk away with it today," he said, reminding the crowd of nearly three dozen that Westrock paid more than $275 million for mills in Newberg and Georgia just weeks prior to idling the mill in fall 2015. "Again, do the math: does it makes sense? (No, unless) you're destroying your competitor."

The receptive crowd included not only the mill's former workers, but also representatives of other unions sympathetic to their cause, as well as family members, fair trade organizations and several pro-union candidates for elected office.

Josh Rojas, a union leader of the Yamhill County Employees Association, said he remembered growing up in the area that the mill was the place to get a job because it was like joining a family. He added that making people retire because the mill was shutting down "Is not OK."

After leading a chant of "Westrock … what a crock!" Pallesen renewed his criticism of the proposed sale and the lack of oversight by the government. He cited mill closures across the land, done for no other reason than to drive up prices for products while costing thousands of mill workers' jobs.

"Why do they get away with it? Because nobody challenges them," he said.

He added that his organization is considering filing an anti-trust lawsuit against Westrock, claiming the huge conglomerate is engaging in unfair trade practices. The lawsuit could be pulled, he said, if the company would reveal the terms of the sale.

"If the sale is above board, why don't they show us their sales agreement? Why don't they show us what it is they're demanding in order for this site to be sold?" he said. "We made that request to them, they're not showing it. We might have it, but they're not showing it and they need to."

Pallesen was referring to a recent internal Westrock memo from a company official saying the sale of the mill was due to close May 5 and that the behemoth paper-making machines were to be destroyed so they couldn't be used by a competitor.

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