EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Unions representing 435 Katahdin Paper Co. LLC millworkers have broken off negotiations for a new contract, their first since 2003, to protect what a union official called the unions’ right to negotiate changes in pension and health plans.
“We’ve taken a pause,” Duane Lugdon, Maine’s United Steelworkers Union international representative, said Friday.
Rick Grunthaler, Katahdin Paper’s human resources department manager and the company’s lead negotiator, said the “pause” was part of the process.
“We are making good progress in the negotiations and we are optimistic we will be back to the tables soon to conclude them,” Grunthaler said Friday. “It is in everybody’s interests to get these things behind us in these tough economic times.”
Managed by the former Fraser Papers Inc., 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.
The unions, including USW Locals 37 and 152, represent 435 workers 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 Tuesday before union negotiators walked out Wednesday. The contract under negotiation will lapse on June 30, Lugdon said.
Under the National Labor Relations Act, unions have a right to negotiate wages, work conditions and benefits, but through the years, the benefits packages have been “progressively modified” by Katahdin Paper, which maintains it has an unfettered right to change — or drop — those benefits, Lugdon said.
Some of those supposed rights have occurred because previous union negotiators have allowed some modifications, Lugdon said.
“They probably should have paid attention to these things and didn’t do so,” he said. “Shame on us in that respect.”
Grunthaler declined to comment on details of the talks.
Though it didn’t prompt the walkout, another point of contention, Lugdon said, is the union’s desire to insert a successor clause into the new contract. Such a clause would guarantee that a buyer of the mill would keep the union and its contract intact should a mill sale occur, he said.
“The public needs to know that we want Katahdin Paper to be concerned with the future of its employees,” Lugdon said. “The successor clause does ensure the future of the community as well.”
Several Maine mills have changed ownership in the last 10 years, he said.
If negotiations fail to resume before the contract lapses, the union can continue to work without a contract, get locked out by mill management or go on strike. Workers at a Sappi paper mill in Skowhegan who walked out of talks in 2006 went without a contract for three years, Lugdon said.