Majority of union members accepted reduced wages in hopes of preserving their jobs

Gary Kean
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[Corner Brook, NL] Their fellow locals went to bat for them everyday, but electricians at Corner Brook Pulp and Paper (Newfoundland & Labrador) say they were unable to get a collective agreement they could live with.

Gary Healey, CEP’s national representative, listens to a question from the media June 22.

Local 96 of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union were the only one of the five CEP locals to reject the labour contract offered to them by parent company Kruger Inc. when results of two days of voting by CEP members were announced late Friday night (June 23).

The electricians followed suit with Lodge 1567 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, who rejected their contract offer Wednesday (June 20).

The IAMAW represents skilled trades workers such as machinists, millwrights and welders.

Robert Aucoin, president of Local 96, said electricians were willing to accept wage, benefit and pension concessions like the other CEP unions, but said their trade needs more help from the company if the mill is to retain electricians.

“We were looking for a trade adjustment to keep us in line with competitors, but mostly to try and keep the people we’ve got there,” said Aucoin after the voting was announced around 11 p.m.

Corner Brook Pulp and Paper needs around two dozen electricians, like it had one year ago, said Aucoin. In the past year, eight electricians have resigned from the mill to find employment elsewhere and two others have retired.

Some of those who quit had between 12 and 20 years of experience, which Aucoin said is not easy to replace with someone fresh off the street, even if that person is an experienced journeyman electrician.

“He’s a journeyman, but he doesn’t have all the skills ... of someone who has worked there for 20 years,” he said.

Aucoin appreciated the support of the other locals during negotiations with the company and hopes the electricians can still work something out with their employer.

“Hopefully, with everything that has happened, we can get back and sit down with company officials to try and work out some sort of agreement and find some way to retain our skilled trades,” he said. “If we don’t have skilled trades in the mill, I don’t know how they are going to maintain the equipment that’s there.”

Gary Healey, the CEP’s national representative, said the union is willing to work with the company to re-position the mill to be competitive in the challenging newsprint market and is awaiting the company’s response.

“The trades have pointed out to the company that it will be difficult to retain qualified personnel with a wage below the industry standard,” said Healey. “This situation will create a significant barrier to maintaining the mill in a production-ready state.”

Brian Quigley, president of Local 64 — the last of the locals to vote, agreed the company has got to do something for it’s skilled trades workers.

“We asked the company every day of negotiations for something to try and retain our tradesmen and boiler operators,” said Quigley. “I don’t know what they’re going to do, but we need them to run the mill.”

At the same time, he is not sure how it would go over for the company to sweeten the pot for one group now.

“What would they be telling you? Turn down your contract all the time and you’ll get something better after?” asked Quigley.

Healey would not give an exact number, but said the percentage of approval was “relatively high” among the locals who did accept their offers.

Nick Gushue, an operator in the thermo-mechanical pulping department and a 35-year veteran of the mill, voted in favour of the contract offered to Local 64. He hopes to retire in five years, but believes the Corner Brook mill still has a future and its workers will live to fight another day.

“It’s not like the old days when we could fight the company,” he said. “Times are hard, but we’ll do our part to help out.”

Now that there is some agreement between the unions and the company, Gushue would like to see the government invest in upgrading the mill’s infrastructure so it can continue to compete in the industry.

“Don’t give it to the company so they can do what they want with it,” he said of government money if it is available. “It has to be spent in that mill to keep the mill going. You’re talking Newfoundlanders’ money. You don’t want that going to Montreal. You want that being spent on our future.”

In a press release issued late Friday night, Kruger acknowledged the positive vote from the CEP members who did accept the collective agreements left with them one week ago. There was no reference to Local 96’s rejection, but Kruger did say it must still further assess the mill’s viability since the IAMAW has rejected its contract offer.

The company said the new collective agreement will come into effect immediately and enables the company to hold a second vote on the pension plan funding relief measures and to continue assessing the mill’s viability.

Corner Brook Pulp and Paper’s pension plan administrators will now begin the process of arranging a second vote for active and retired employees on the pension proposal that was rejected by the unions in May.

The company expects the vote on the pension plan to be completed by Aug. 22.

Western Stars

Organizations: International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Paperworkers union, Local 64

Geographic location: Corner Brook, Montreal

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