Newfoundland premier says mill agreement is good first step, but much more to do

CORNER BROOK, N.L. – Most unionized workers at Newfoundland’s last paper mill accepted a new contract Friday night, but the premier said there’s still more to do to secure the mill’s long-term sustainability.

The majority of the more than 300 workers at Corner Brook Pulp and Paper accepted the deal from the mill’s owner, Montreal-based Kruger Inc.

Premier Kathy Dunderdale, who was in Corner Brook for the vote, said Saturday that the agreement is “encouraging.”

“Much work remains to be done but certainly this vote shows the commitment of the [union] workers to securing the mill’s future,” Dunderdale said in a release.

Kruger has been stressing the importance of a vote on the mill’s future all week.

In a letter, CEO Joseph Kruger said a vote against the proposed agreement would be a vote against keeping the mill open.

It is the last paper mill standing in the province after two other plants in Grand Falls-Windsor and Stephenville shut down in 2009 and 2005 respectively.

Global demand for newsprint has steadily fallen in recent years.

Kruger said the wage cuts in the agreement are necessary to keep the mill, which employs about 400 people and is an important part of Corner Brook, running.

Local MP Gerry Byrne said people need to recognize the importance of the agreement.

“Mill workers in Corner Brook have made a very difficult choice to reduce their own paycheques to keep this mill afloat,” he said. “No one should be happy that these workers took a pay cut but instead we should all be thankful.”

Current and retired workers still need to vote on changes to the pension plan.

Restructuring the firm’s pension plan was a stumbling block during negotiations.

The company has said it needs 10 years instead of five to pay back a pension deficit.

Kruger said pension changes “are essential to the mill’s competitiveness and sustainability.”

The process is expected to finish by Aug. 22.

If all issues with the union are resolved and a long-term sustainability plan is in place, Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy, also minister responsible for the Forestry and Agrifoods Agency, said the province will continue to support the mill.

“We urge the company and the [union] to try and find a way forward through this difficult situation and make another attempt to reach an agreement,” Kennedy said in a release.

(The Canadian Press, VOCM)