Originally created 12/02/99

Protesters demand fair wages



ST. MARYS, Ga. -- Union members are protesting a South Georgia paper plant over pay to tradesmen they say is too low.

About 15 union workers stood along the shoulders of the road near Gilman Paper Co.'s wood gate before dawn Tuesday and again Wednesday to protest lower-than-average wages paid by two contractors working at the plant.

The members of union locals, including pipefitters, millwrights, electricians and machinists, held signs asserting that two out-of-state firms pay their workers less than the prevailing wage for the area.

Steam and Control Systems Inc. of Chattanooga, Tenn., is paying workers 34 percent less and Tri-Gen Biotech of Rutherfordton, N.C., is paying 13 percent too low, the signs said.

Although the union members were conducting their informational picket at one of Gilman's gates, their complaint is with the contractors building a boiler at the plant and not with Gilman, said James T. Johnson, a union organizer from Brunswick.

"We're not asking them to hire union people or get rid of these people out here. We're asking them to pay what's normal," Mr. Johnson said.

The picketers did not try to stop anyone from going to their jobs.

Outside companies usually hire a few local laborers along with a few skilled craftsmen but bring other skilled workers in from elsewhere to finish out the work force.

When they pay wages lower than what are typical, it threatens the pay scales of existing jobs, Mr. Johnson has said. The prevailing wage is based on statistics gathered by the federal Labor Department.

Contacted in Chattanooga by phone, Steam and Control Vice President Perry Smith said he was aware of the picket but declined to comment. Tri-Gen officials could not be reached in St. Marys or North Carolina.

The Georgia Department of Labor said last week that the unemployment rate in Coastal Georgia was 3.5 percent in October, a 1.2 percent drop from the same period last year.

State Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond said there is a serious shortage of skilled workers along the coast and throughout Georgia.