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Working Class Hero Phil Polk (USW 27) Retires

Andy O’Brien
20 Jan, 2023
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Former USW Local 27 president Phil Polk has retired after 37 years working at the Woodland mill in Baileyville. His friends and colleagues remember Polk as a staunch advocate for union members who would fight to the very end for their interests.

“The one thing that no one has ever questioned about Phil is his dedication and hard work serving the members,” said Local 27 President Shawn Howland. “His heart has always been with doing the right thing for our union.”

Polk worked in union construction before taking a job at the Woodland Pulp mill in 1985. He started in the chip yard and four years later got hired to work in the dryer. Both of his parents were union leaders — his father was the local president at the former Georgia Pacific Chip and Saw Plant and his mother was president of the Office Workers (OPEIU) local at Woodland. Then-Local 27 President Ernest Perry had known both of Polk’s parents and encouraged him to become a shop steward.

Polk said his father instilled in him the importance of solidarity, which he took to heart in his role as a steward and later president.

“I came at the job with what my father taught me a long time ago,” said Polk. “When you’re involved with something like this, it’s like when you jam your finger in something — your little finger doesn’t just hurt. Your whole hand does.”

Retired USW labor rep Duane Lugdon gave Polk the nickname “Junkyard Dog” for his tenacity at the bargaining table. That always gives Polk a chuckle.

“Phil was a very creative union officer and local union president,” said Lugdon. "He always had the best interests of his members at heart and he did everything he could for them at the bargaining table. Phil was always the kind of guy who would do anything to help his members even if that meant leaving home during hunting season when all he wanted to do was hunt.”

Leading During a Crisis

Polk led his members through some of the most difficult times at the pulp mill, which was founded in 1904 to supply wood pulp to papermakers. The Woodland facility began making paper in 1906 and for generations it has provided good family-sustaining jobs for working class people in a region with few economic opportunities. The mill was originally founded by the owners of the Boston Globe and produced newsprint for the paper until the 1960s.

In 1963, it was purchased by Georgia-Pacific, which converted from producing newsprint to fine paper. Then in 2001 the mill was resold to the Canadian company Domtar, which shut down its paper machine in 2007, laying off 150 workers. In the late 1980s, there were 1,200 workers between the Woodland Pulp and paper mill in Baileyville and the Louisiana Pacific Oriented Strand Board mill up the road. But by the depths of the recession in 2009 only the pulp mill was left with just 300 workers. Some senior members, like former President Perry, took company buy-outs so younger workers with families could remain working.

Retired Local 27 member Wendy Johnson recalls how Polk would drive to Brewer to volunteer with Food AND Medicine’s Solidarity Harvest and deliver 125 meals to laid off workers back in Baileyville.

“Every year, at our board meeting Phil would put in a donation to Solidarity Harvest,” said Johnson. “Then he’d go up there after working all night at the mill to assemble food boxes and bring them back to pass out to families. He did that year after year after year.”

Perry always said Polk went above and beyond what even he himself would have done to look after his brothers and sisters in that moment.

Food AND Medicine director Jack McKay said he first met Polk during major layoffs at the mill. He recalls Polk doing whatever he could to support his fellow workers, including organizing a truck caravan of over a hundred Thanksgiving baskets all the way to Baileyville.  

“To me, Phil embodies about everything you want in a trade unionist — he prioritizes workers, he's ready to lend a hand at any time and he really gets what it means to fight for workers,” said McKay. “I learned a lot from Phil and will miss his activism and comradeship in the movement. But I know he has a well deserved retirement.”

The firm International Grand Investment Corp (IGIC) eventually acquired the mill in 2010 and began investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the facility by adding a tissue-making capacity at St. Croix Tissue and making other upgrades.

Polk stepped down as president in 2018 following a throat cancer diagnosis, but that’s now in remission and he’s ready to enjoy his retirement, whether it’s working on his camp, catching up on fishing and hunting or just relaxing. His parting advice for other union members is simply to “fight for the rights for all, not just for yourself.”