EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Unions representing 435 Katahdin Paper Co. LLC millworkers are negotiating a new contract, their first since 2003, a union official said Thursday.
The new contract’s terms are still largely undefined, said Duane Lugdon, Maine’s United Steelworkers Union international representative.
“The company is expressing needs for a long-term [contract], but we have not gotten down to the particulars of what the term might be,” Lugdon said Thursday. “We are still at the bargaining table, still negotiating, and at this point I wouldn’t want to reflect on how it’s going.
“We have a long way to go,” he added.
Managed by the former Fraser Papers, now known as Twin Rivers Paper Co., and owned by parent company Brookfield Asset Management of Toronto, the Main Street mill employs about 450 workers making directory-grade paper and newsprint.
Rick Grunthaler, Katahdin Paper’s human resources department manager, said he did not want to comment directly on the specifics of the negotiations.
“We are working diligently on a new labor agreement that we hope the union’s membership will accept,” Grunthaler said Thursday.
The 435 affected workers come from several unions, including USW Locals 37 and 152, represented in the talks, which began May 20 and have continued intermittently, Lugdon said.
The number of workers at the mill places Katahdin Paper among the Katahdin region’s top three employers.
The union and management representatives met at the Baxter Park Inn in Millinocket on Thursday and are due to finish there today before resuming talks on June 8. The contract under negotiation will lapse on June 30, Lugdon said.
Effective from May 1, 2003, through April 30, 2009, with at least one extension, the contract, at the time of its ratification, provided pay increases totaling 8 percent in the last four years, but reduced most pay rates by $2 and $3 an hour when the contract was in its first year. Some cuts went as deep as $5 an hour.
It was unclear Thursday whether all of those terms still hold.
Lugdon has said that Katahdin millworkers are among the lowest-paid in the Fraser hierarchy. When 460 members of USW Locals 291, 365 and 1247 approved a three-year deal at the company’s Madawaska mill in February — in which they took an immediate 8½ percent wage cut to help Fraser successfully escape bankruptcy protection and form Twin Rivers — the concession returned union pay to 2003 levels, but still kept Madawaska wage levels ahead of East Millinocket’s.
“Madawaska was actively involved in bankruptcy. Katahdin Paper is not. That’s a significant difference,” Lugdon said. “The company has provided us with strength and weaknesses. I won’t be prepared to discuss them in the media at this point.
“The union doesn’t want trouble,” he added, “but we are not going to walk away from it, either.”