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Hundreds of former millworkers seek work in East Millinocket

Posted Sept. 19, 2011, at 5:58 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 20, 2011, at 7:45 p.m.

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Michele Purcell, 23, of East Millinocket fills out a job application for the Great Northern Paper Co. in East Millinocket. The New Hampshire-based Cate Street Capital bought the mill and plans to hire about 250 people over the next two weeks.
Michele Purcell, 23, of East Millinocket fills out a job application for the Great Northern Paper Co. in East Millinocket. The New Hampshire-based Cate Street Capital bought the mill and plans to hire about 250 people over the next two weeks.
Dana Cram came to the Katahdin Region Education Center to fill out an application for the East Millinocket mill. Cram worked at the mill for 42 years before it was shut down.
Dana Cram came to the Katahdin Region Education Center to fill out an application for the East Millinocket mill. Cram worked at the mill for 42 years before it was shut down.

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — If you worked at the Main Street paper mill and needed to move something heavy, Dana Cram was your man.

The 64-year-old Cram said he was the yard supervisor for 25 of his 42 years with the mill, overseeing 26 workers running dump trucks, back hoes, bulldozers and forklifts to keep the mill stocked with wood. Ask how tough the work was and Cram will hold up a gnarled right thumb, badly broken years ago when a dump truck door slammed on it in heavy winds.

“Some of it was very labor-intensive. With other stuff, you just sat in the machine and ran it,” Cram said Monday. “You went from [temperatures of] 30 below outside, or in the paper room, it would be 110 or 120 degrees. But it was a good job. You did something different every day. Every day you saw different people. Things might not have been perfect, but it was still good work.”

Cram was among an estimated 340 people applying for jobs at the new Great Northern Paper Co. LLC through the Katahdin Region Higher Education Center on Route 11 since the center started taking applications on Thursday.

Cate Street and state officials declined to comment Monday on when the mill would start rehiring workers or when the mill would restart. Duane Lugdon, a United Steelworkers Union international representative, said company officials told him work preparing the mill probably would not start until next week.

Gov. Paul LePage announced late Friday that Cate Street Capital had bought the East Millinocket and Millinocket mills in escrow for an undisclosed price from present mill owner Brookfield Asset Management. The news was greeted with acclaim in the Katahdin region, which has suffered a 21 percent unemployment rate since the East Millinocket mill closed in April, idling 150 workers.

State and Cate Street officials declined to discuss the terms of the sale on Monday.

Great Northern plans to hire as many as 250 workers to ship its first orders by Oct. 30.

Market conditions will dictate when the Millinocket mill opens, but not for several months, officials have said. The company had hoped to close on the deal last Thursday and start stocking wood in the East Millinocket’s wood yard on Tuesday.

Security workers at the East Millinocket mill said they had seen only a few management workers from Brookfield subsidiary Katahdin Paper Co. LLC come through the gate on Monday.

Cram doesn’t expect to get the $18.43 per hour he earned in the mill’s heyday. He hopes he doesn’t get offered the $11 per hour in the contract that union members overwhelmingly approved on Wednesday.

“I won’t take it,” Cram said. “I can understand them wanting a probationary period [and temporarily paying less] to see who’s who and who can do the work. That’s fine, but the way I look at it, you should get the same pay for the same work everybody else gets. If you got the credentials, then you get the pay.”

Sherman resident Toby Cox said he would be happy to earn $11 an hour. A 47-year-old carpenter, handyman and laborer, Cox has lived for 4½ years without health insurance, taking whatever work he could find and supporting himself on an average income of less than $195 a week.

“Having to make a $15 minimum is absolutely ridiculous and to have top pay for workers at $35 an hour, like some places do, is ludicrous. These companies cannot afford that,” Cox said. “I feel sorry for the ones that have to. These companies have to come together, to reality, and realized that everybody’s got to buckle their own shoes.”

Most returning workers’ feelings seem to fall between Cram’s and Cox’s. Union leaders said the contract was approved by 93 percent of the more than 400 members who voted at Schenck High School, but the mood was far from approving.

Workers seemed happy to have a job but disliked a five-year contract that kept them the lowest-paid paper workers in Maine. It pays starting workers a low of $11 per hour for an 8,000-hour probation period, but the same wages — $14.98 to $21.63 per hour, not $35 an hour — Katahdin Paper paid when the East Millinocket mill closed.

The contract offered no set raises or cost-of-living increases, partly abolished seniority, and paid them the same salaries they earned at the Millinocket mill, which closed in September 2008, and in East Millinocket, whose mill closed in April. Union leaders also agreed to merge two USW locals at Cate Street’s request.

“It’s crap,” said one worker of the deal, “but we don’t have much of a choice.”

The workers seemed worried that the Cate Street deal was like the contracts offered by the mills’ many owners since the 1980s — salted with promises of better things to come that never arrive. Several said that April’s sudden unemployment and loss of wages would take them months or years to recover from financially and noted that while their wages decline, those of paper mill executives don’t seem to.

That might be a reference to two top-level executives at Fraser Papers Inc., which ran the Katahdin region mills for Brookfield, getting paid $1.15 million in bonuses and stock options in 2008 before filing for bankruptcy protection in 2009 and extracting a one-year, 8.5 percent pay cut from 460 workers at the paper mill it owned in Madawaska last year.

NewPage Corp. paid its resigning director, president and chief executive officer Richard D. Willett Jr. a severance payment equal to two times his base salary, or a total of $1.3 million, in January 2010. NewPage filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this month.

Mark Scally, chairman of the East Millinocket Board of Selectmen, said that most of the workers he knew were happy to return to the mill, except one who is tired of working in a paper industry whose future seemed so bleak.

Union leaders weren’t happy with the new contract, Lugdon said, but were glad that most wages stayed pat.

Unions, Lugdon said, have been flexible as the paper industry contracted, accepting reduced wages to keep mills going, as they did when Lincoln Paper & Tissue Co. LLC restarted the Lincoln mill in 2004, and negotiating increases when the businesses started profiting anew.

Lincoln’s workers got a 7 to 11 percent wage hike with a contract extension in 2008 — not enough to regain the pay rates they were paid by LP&T’s predecessor, but still an increase.

“They have been asked to make a lot of concessions through the years, and none of the cuts ever saved the mills,” Lugdon said. “I am sure there will be an amount of trepidation out there. How can people think that their experiences over the last 10 to 15 years have all of a sudden been forgotten?”

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