MILLINOCKET, Maine — Brookfield Asset Management’s failure to commit to a restart of the Katahdin Avenue paper mill in 2009 will likely force more workers than necessary to leave the area, union officials said Sunday.
By the conclusion Thursday of negotiations centered on the effects of the mill shutdown, union and mill officials had agreed on a number of points regarding the laid-off workers.
But Duane Lugdon, a representative for three United Steelworkers International unions at the Millinocket and East Millinocket paper mills, said the mill owners have failed to abate skepticism about Brookfield’s claims that it is in negotiations with a third party to restart the mill next year, if the numbers add up, with a biomass boiler.
“They keep telling us they are working diligently at this,” Lugdon said Sunday, “but if you look at it, [investment bank] Merrill-Lynch was sold over a weekend, and we have been hearing about this [biomass plan and negotiations] since May.
“I don’t think they are being as diligent as they say,” he said. “This is not rocket science. They ought to be able to get this done. You can’t go on saying that you’re in negotiations forever.”
Other union officials joined Lugdon in criticizing Brookfield. The company is the parent of Fraser Papers, which manages the mill, and Katahdin Paper Co. LLC, which owns the Katahdin Avenue mill and another paper mill in East Millinocket.
Ike Gabriel, international representative for the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers, said in a statement released by Lugdon that mill management and owners “have a moral duty to drive the uncertainty and anxiety out of this situation in the heart of the Maine woods.”
“Brookfield appears to be incapable of a decision to rebuild a boiler in Millinocket … for better than two months now,” Gabriel added. “It is time for Brookfield to do the right thing.”
A multibillion-dollar international firm, Brookfield of Toronto announced May 29 that the Millinocket mill’s prodigious oil use would force an indefinite shutdown and layoff of 208 workers if an alternative energy source were not found in 60 days.
Gov. John Baldacci intervened, the mill found energy savings and supportive customers, and the shutdown deadline was extended repeatedly over the summer. Brookfield was in talks with alternative-energy providers on Aug. 26 when its officials ordered the Sept. 2 shutdown in a manner that Baldacci, who has pledged to hold Brookfield to its restart promise, said was abrupt.
According to union officials, management terminated the effects negotiations in a similarly brusque style. It made some concessions designed to ease workers’ transition to unemployment, but didn’t say how many workers would be laid off or set a restart date, Lugdon said.
The lack of a restart date will force workers to leave the region to seek work, Lugdon said.
“People can’t go without incomes,” Lugdon said, “and unemployment [compensation] will get them only so far. By the end of this year people are going to start being really up against it.”
Mill mothballing and cleanup operations, plus a management restructuring, worker retraining, bumping between workers in town and East Millinocket, and the establishment of a winter maintenance crew, likely will cut into the number of layoffs. The layoffs are occurring gradually, management has said.
Eighteen workers were to have been laid off as of Saturday, management said early last week. Brookfield has told mill Manager Serge Sorokin to assemble a biomass transition team and develop a transition and mill operational plan that the team will present to the Brookfield board of directors upon the plan’s completion, said Glenn Saucier, the mill’s personnel department director, who has led the effects negotiations.
Saucier did not return telephone messages requesting comment Sunday.
During effects negotiations, both sides agreed to the following:
•Unaffected workers, such as those facing retirement, can volunteer for layoff, thereby allowing workers slated for layoff to keep their jobs.
• A recall list of all laid-off employees will be maintained until all layoffs get a chance to return to the Katahdin operations.
• Accrued vacation and holiday pay for calendar year 2009 will be paid to workers who indicate by Nov. 1 that they will retire by Jan. 1, 2009.
• Employees leaving the Millinocket mill will have a right for two more years to return to the mill if it restarts. Workers bumped to East Millinocket must return to Millinocket if restart occurs.
• Laid-off workers will keep their health care plan for two months past their layoff.