MADAWASKA, Maine — The 460 employees at Fraser Papers Inc.’s Madawaska mill who are negotiating a new labor contract with the company have turned down an initial offer by the firm.
Representatives for all parties involved will be back at the table today for further negotiations.
The employees are members of the United Steelworkers union. Duane Lugdon, international representative for the Steelworkers union, said Tuesday that contract negotiations began in the beginning of August.
“I cannot give any details about the specifics of the contract,” Lugdon said. “We are not done negotiating yet and are going back to the table on Thursday. I can say that 98 percent of those who voted, voted against the contract.”
The vote was cast Nov. 22. It was the first offer that the union took to a vote, according to Bill Peterson, Fraser’s human resources director.
Peterson also said he could not discuss terms of the contract.
“We agreed not to negotiate in the media,” he said.
Fraser Papers sought bankruptcy protection in Canadian and U.S. courts in June and is in the process of restructuring. The company took steps over the summer to stabilize its finances.
Lugdon said the locals at the company’s Madawaska mill realize the bankruptcy process is ongoing as they negotiate the contract.
“The company has gone public with a plan to reorganize and build a future for the Madawaska mill,” he said. “Everyone in Madawaska realizes that the future of the mill is what we need to ensure. That is why we are negotiating in good faith, and we will continue to bargain as we move forward.”
Lugdon stressed that he could not talk about any specifics, proposed terms or timelines of the contract so as not to jeopardize future negotiations. He did say that he was “not surprised” that employees voted against the initial contract offer.
“The terms of the contract were not advantageous for employees,” he said. “The task now is to go back to the table and build a contract to benefit everyone.”
Fraser’s Madawaska mill is the company’s largest paper mill and is capable of producing a variety of specialty packaging, publishing, label and converting papers.
Headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, Fraser has operations in Maine, New Hampshire, New Brunswick and Quebec.
In August, union workers at Fraser’s Edmundston, New Brunswick, mill ratified a three-year contract. Fraser said it provided for a more competitive labor cost structure with future wage increases tied directly to the profits.
Peterson acknowledged that the initial offer in Madawaska was turned down, but said he was optimistic a deal will be reached.
“Bankruptcy is difficult,” he said. “Contract negotiations are even more difficult because we are in bankruptcy. But we are looking to restructure. We know that concessions are difficult. I am optimistic we can negotiate a contract.”
Lugdon also expressed optimism, saying that the Madawaska employees and everyone in the St. John Valley “is very much concerned about the status and future of the mill.”
“The mission here is about securing the future of the mill, not to enrich anyone’s pocketbook,” he said. “I think everyone realizes how important this is.”