by Dennis Dalman
Lyle Fleck, union president, became irate when he heard someone say Verso workers were, alas, just “a bunch of button pushers.”
That happened last December, after Verso laid off 175 of its workers. The person who made the “button-pusher” remark was attempting to convey the thought that the unemployed workers would get any kind of low-skilled jobs since they are “merely” button pushers.
Fleck is president of United Steel Workers Local 274.
“Verso workers are not a bunch of button-pushers,” Fleck said. “Many of the them are highly educated,” Fleck said. “Some have degrees, some don’t. But they are all intelligent and highly motivated, excellent workers. There’s such a pool of talent I would think some of them might start up their own businesses.”
So strong is Fleck’s faith in his fellow employees that he is very confident they will all find work sooner than later, especially if they pursue some training options.
For the better part of a year, Fleck and the members of the union committee have been working hard to see to the needs of laid-off workers – those who were laid off last December. And now, that task has become even more urgent and difficult since 295 more workers are out of a job.
“We’re focusing on what we can do to keep people in the community and to help them find jobs,” Fleck said.
Fleck and union committee members have answered countless questions about how to go about getting unemployment insurance. Many Verso workers had been at the paper mill for so long, decades in fact, that they had never had to learn how to register for unemployment.
“We’ve had so many ups and downs,” Fleck said. “One day it would all seem positive, then the next day not so much. But we always tried to stay hopeful. But it’s been hard, plain and simple. Jon (Maus) losing his life was the worst thing. After that, it was like a roller-coaster ride day to day. A lot of times it reminded me of the movie ‘Titanic’ when the captain keeps looking through his binoculars as the water keeps rising and rising.”
Raised in east Sartell, Fleck spent a good part of is life working at Verso in the calendar-paper department. He started there in 1981. His mother, Winnie, also worked there many years ago.
Fleck has no bitterness and no complaints.
“I honestly believe the company did everything in their power to try to keep this place open,” Fleck said. “But it just couldn’t be done.”
He has virtual bouquets of praise for all of the people who gathered together for support in the wake of the explosion and fire. He praises Ken Heim, fire chief, and his firefighters. He lauds Mayor Joe Perske for being in constant communication with him and others. He has words of thanks for fellow worker Vern Barthel, who organized a benefit for the Jon Maus family. And he had the highest of praise for his union committee.
“Everyone stepped up, and I am so proud of them,” he said. “They were under a lot of pressure, especially in the last couple of months. They worked so hard all these months, and when one needed a rest, someone else would step right up and fill in for awhile. Our (union) vice president, Dale Dirks, was so helpful through it all.”
About a month ago, Fleck was asked to give a talk at a union meeting in Pittsburgh. He told about the explosion at Verso. The audience was so moved, several decided to “pass the hat.” Close to $3,000 was raised for the Maus family. That is just one of many examples Fleck shared with the Newsleader about how kind, caring and generous so many people were.
Fleck said he is also impressed by all of those, including legislators and the governor, who have vowed to help workers find jobs and help get a new industry or use for the Verso site. He believes they are serious and will keep their word. The union, he said, will work right along side of the key players in those efforts.
As for Fleck himself, his future, like most ex-Verso workers, remains uncertain.
“I don’t have any plans yet,” he said. I haven’t put too much thought into it. There’s still too many things to do. Maybe in a couple weeks I’ll start thinking about what I’m going to do. I do have the comfort of knowing I had that job for so long and got to work with so many good people.”