MADAWASKA, Maine — The United Steelworkers union and Fraser Papers Inc. ended contract talks Thursday with a tentative deal that management said would keep the town’s 680-worker paper mill running but that union negotiators declined to endorse or reject.
After two days of negotiations with management, USW Local 365, 291 and 1247 leaders are “not enchanted” with the three-year contract renewal, but will unveil it to their 460 members on Saturday. A vote will occur Monday, said Duane Lugdon, Maine’s USW international representative.
“While the union is not enchanted with the offer, we think it is more equitable for our members than was yesterday’s,” Lugdon said at the end of talks at the Grand Isle Community Center on Thursday. “We feel like our membership is in a more equitable place.”
Lugdon bristled at Fraser Human Resources Director Bill Peterson’s statements Wednesday that the mill would face closure unless the locals helped Fraser escape bankruptcy by accepting the contract, which he said included $4 million in concessions. Both sides declined to discuss deal specifics Thursday.
“It was extremely unfair to the employees,” Lugdon said. “The public has been misled, not necessarily by the comments, but they have been led to believe that the union workers would make a decision to in effect quit their jobs if they don’t vote for this contract.
“Nobody here wants this place to run more than the employees that run it,” he added. “A lot of lives are at stake, a lot of families, and it behooves everybody here to do the right thing.”
Peterson made no bones Wednesday that he was engaging in saber rattling — sending a strong message to the unions through the media that it was time to make the deal. The new deal is among three conditions the re-formed, postbankruptcy Fraser company, temporarily called Newco, must meet to prevent closing the specialty papers mill, he said.
A credit group of Brookfield Asset Management, CIT-Canada and the New Brunswick provincial government won’t proceed with a proposed $180 million bailout of Fraser without the contract. Other investors also backed away from the company, feeling the risk of taking over the mill too great without a deal with workers, Peterson has said.
Fraser Papers sought bankruptcy protection in Canadian and U.S. courts in June.
Workers disagreed with Peterson. Fraser filed for bankruptcy protection while its executives were taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses, some workers said as they walked from the Bridge Street mill at the evening shift change on Thursday.
Among other things, media accounts lacked insight into day-to-day mill operations, previous union contracts, the many sacrifices already made by unions to keep the mill going, or any comparison between union deals and the compensation paid to management and salaried workers, union members said.
“The unions are just trying to get something reasonable,” said a hydro pump operator and Local 1247 member. “They [management] are taking money from our pockets and putting it into theirs and not putting it into the mill. They are the ones who need to change.”
“There is too much in the media that leaves people to believe that unions are part of what’s wrong with America,” Lugdon said. “Unions are democracy. The union doesn’t call the shots here, the members call the shots.”
On Thursday, facing a room full of union leaders, Peterson stood by his comments.
“Our customers are at a point where they have had enough,” Peterson said. “They are looking for some degree of sureness. We are at a point where we are out of time.”
Peterson also softened his stance. Several times he praised workers and their representatives for their professionalism. He acknowledged that more than 30 executives had received raises or bonuses.
“Nobody likes the condition we [Fraser] are in,” he said. “We need help. We have to figure out how to do more with less. The entire corporation is being downsized.”
Saturday’s contract discussion will occur at Madawaska High School at 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. The vote will be held from 5 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 8, at the Madawaska Public Safety Building.