Brookfield extends some health care benefits for Katahdin workers

Posted April 30, 2011, at 7:01 p.m.
Last modified May 01, 2011, at 3:48 p.m.

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Union workers at the Main Street paper mill will get 30 more days of health care coverage under a closure agreement set Saturday by mill owner Brookfield Asset Management and union representatives.

United Steelworkers Union representative Duane Lugdon announced the agreement between management and the mill’s unions after a 4½-hour negotiation at the mill. He said he was somewhat satisfied by the results.

“The ethic at the meeting was pretty cordial,” Lugdon said Saturday. “I would say that Brookfield came forward after being pressured by the union to do the right thing.”

“Can I say they went all the way in doing the right thing? I don’t think I would say that, but I think they extended what they wanted to do,” Lugdon added.

Attempts to contact Rick Grunthaler, the mill’s personnel manager, were unsuccessful Saturday.

The approximately 415 unionized workers will get health benefits until May 31, Lugdon said.

“The extension will allow people to get major surgeries that they had scheduled taken care of,” Lugdon said. “People who have maintenance needs, like diabetics, will have time to make other arrangements, and it [the extension] covers all of them against any health care calamities that might occur over the next 30 days.”

Representatives from at least three unions began negotiating for extra benefits and a closure agreement shortly after April 8, when Meriturn Partners LLC announced that it would drop efforts to buy from Brookfield the Main Street and Millinocket paper mills for $1 due to a failure to secure conditions the San Francisco investor thought necessary to the purchase and because key East Millinocket mill customers had begun searching for new suppliers.

The East Millinocket mill closed April 1, idling as many as 450 unionized and nonunion workers. Millinocket’s mill closed in September 2008.

East Millinocket workers are owed one more paycheck before they will begin receiving unemployment aid and other benefits, Lugdon said. They also will receive $3,000 to $12,000 in severance pay depending on their positions, seniority and other factors.

The unions’ contracts also have been extended to June 15, which means that Katahdin Paper Co. LLC, a Brookfield subsidiary that owns the mills, will not subcontract to other workers and that workers will have recall rights — rights to reclaim their jobs should a new mill owner materialize, Lugdon said.

Lugdon said he hoped another buyer would come forward, but had no idea whether this would occur. Brookfield agreed on Friday not to begin decommissioning the mills for 90 days to help local and state officials find another buyer.

“We continue to work as diligently as we know to get these mills restarted,” Lugdon said of the unions. “We have an area of the state here that is very depressed and people need these jobs. There are not many jobs out there for them. We are working as hard as we can.”

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