June 21, 2018
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‘We want to work’: The unemployed workers of the last Katahdin mill face an uncertain future

By Nick Sambides Jr., BDN Staff

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Darrell Hartin spent about 38 years as a wastewater treatment worker at the Main Street paper mill, and he might still have a job there, he said Tuesday.

A spokesman for the Katahdin Paper Co. LLC mill announced Friday that a temporary shutdown begun on April 1 would continue indefinitely, but union workers said that mill parent company Brookfield Asset Management has told them that the mill would continue to treat town residents’ wastewater and will pay a small crew — no more than a dozen workers — to maintain the mill in case another owner can be found.

But the 63-year-old Island Falls man still attended meetings at Schenck High School in which a Maine Department of Labor rapid response team acquainted workers with the state’s unemployment and job retraining application processes.

“I will probably file for unemployment, Social Security, whatever’s going. This is probably going to wrap it up for me,” Hartin said. “It’s been just too long going through this nonsense with one [mill ownership] after another.

“At one time, this was a great place to work,” Hartin added. “We used to think this place had a future. Well, that’s been proven wrong.”

About 400 millworkers who are members of the United Steelworkers Union and other unions attended two rapid response team sessions at the high school. Duane Lugdon, United Steelworkers Union international representative for the 320 members at the East Millinocket plant, said Brookfield had promised to pay workers until April 22, reimburse them for unused 2011 vacations and holidays and make severance payments.

Millworkers had been allowed to take personal items from the mill on Tuesday and the union is negotiating for an extension of the workers’ health benefits, Lugdon said.

The mills’ managers “have been reasonable,” Lugdon said. “We haven’t hit any major, major hurdles yet.”

Meriturn Partners of San Francisco tried to buy the East Millinocket and Millinocket mills for $1 by April 29 but withdrew from a potential deal on Friday, citing an inability to meet the conditions its leaders felt it needed. East Millinocket and Millinocket officials who met with Gov. Paul LePage on Monday expressed hope that new prospective buyers could be found for the mills.

The names of about a half-dozen paper manufacturers and other investors have surfaced since Patriarch Partners founder and CEO Lynn Tilton confirmed about a year ago her interest in buying the mills. Brookfield originally had said that it would close the East Millinocket mill on April 22. The Millinocket mill closed in 2008.

Bruce Cox, president of USW Local 37, which had about 150 members at the mill, said that he was pleased at how helpful state labor workers were and how his union held together over the last 16 months, when efforts to sell the East Millinocket mill began in earnest.

The members “are taking in all the information they are getting,” Cox said. “They are looking at their households and what their future needs will be. They are making decisions now about their families and whether they need to leave the area to look for jobs.”

The Katahdin region had been a cradle of papermaking for more than a century, until Friday’s shutdown. Some workers have been hired at paper mills in Lincoln and Bucksport, but not many, Cox and Lugdon said. Many others have applied at mills statewide.

“We want to work. We want to restart the mill,” Cox said. “The mill is clean and it’s ready to go. We’d like a potential buyer to come in and restart these mills.”

But nobody knew who that potential buyer would be, or when — if, indeed, ever — the mills would restart.

“I fear for the young guys most of all,” Harden said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do.”

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