[PORT HAWKESBURY, NS] — Unionized employees of NewPage Port Hawkesbury soberly made their way out of the town’s fire hall Thursday evening after learning the details of a contract presented as a take-it-or-leave-it offer by the company negotiating to buy the idled paper mill.
Less than half of the mill’s former workforce would potentially return to work if Pacific West Commercial Corp. does reopen the mill, and the workplace they would return to if the offer is ratified would be dramatically different.
“It seems to be quite different than we were,” Gerald Samson said as he left the three-hour meeting.
“You’ve got a lot of emotional people upstairs and I think it’s going to take a lot of time to take this in and take a good look at it.”
Samson was most concerned about the impact the offer would have on job security for some employees.
“You could have members of the union here with 25 years that are going home and somebody with two or three years that are staying. That’s not what unions are about.”
One of the most emotional issues is the fate of pensions, Samson said. The NewPage plans were severely underfunded and Pacific West is not taking on those liabilities. Instead, there will be a new defined contribution plan.
“You have a carrot dangled in front of you, you work for 30 years and when you get to that carrot, somebody’s eaten it and it’s pretty hard to take,” he said, adding he expects some older workers will have to go out West to try to recoup some of their losses.
One longtime mill worker who didn’t want to be identified described the mood inside the meeting as sombre, and said he now intends to go West to work rather than try his luck with Pacific West. He left two hours into the meeting, saying there was no point in staying any longer.
The man, in his 50s, said the union would be giving up everything it had achieved in rounds of bargaining with previous operators of the mill if they accept Pacific West’s offer.
“It’s going a long ways back, a long ways back,” he said. “There’s no more seniority.”
A lot of the workers are realistic about the state of the paper industry, he said, and expect newsprint machines to continue to close. The prospects for specialty paper, like the supercalendered paper the Point Tupper mill produces, will also deteriorate, he said.
He said he doesn’t believe that Pacific West will walk away if union members reject the offer, noting the amount of time the company has spent negotiating a power purchase agreement with Nova Scotia Power.
Another employee who also didn’t want to be identified, afraid it may affect his prospects of being rehired if the mill reopens, said court-appointed monitor Ernst & Young has indicated if the agreement is not ratified, creditors will seek to have the mill’s assets liquidated. He said that places an even heavier burden on workers as they try to assess whether Pacific West will walk away if they don’t agree to the deal.
He said his only likely option if he doesn’t go back to work at the mill is finding work in the oilpatch and uprooting his young family, although he said there would likely be no one left to buy his house.
Union recording secretary Steve MacDougall said members have been given a couple of days to go over the document and develop questions before they meet again Saturday to decide what the next step will be, and when, or if, a vote on it will take place.
“We’ve been dealing with these issues for 16 days (of negotiations) now, so it’s kind of fresh in our minds, but these guys are just hearing it for the first time and it takes a lot to absorb it. There’s an awful lot of changes from our previous contract,” he said.
Among the biggest issues are seniority and severance pay, MacDougall said. While workers were expecting to be asked to accept some concessions, he said he didn’t think they realized how extensive they would be.
“There’s lots of rumours around ... but I could tell by the expression on our guys’ and girls’ faces, this is blowing their minds. This is way more than they thought they were going to have to be asked for,” MacDougall said.
He said the offer includes opportunities for Pacific West to sell off pieces of the plant and open a non-union shop and hire back whomever they want.
Union first-vice-president Archie MacLachlan described the feeling in the room as, “after a boxing match, 12 rounds of getting pounded around.”