CORNER BROOK As they took a break from the discussions about how much they were willing to give up on wages and pensions, Justin Park and Nelson Cluett were both thinking about their fellow mill workers who were in even tougher spots than themselves.
Park, a 27-year-old millwright, and Cluett, a 66-year-old machinist, are respectively the youngest and the oldest skilled trades workers at Corner Brook Pulp and Paper.
After finishing their chat and cigarettes outside the Elks Lodge late Wednesday afternoon, the two men went back inside where their union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, eventually voted to reject the offer left with them by the mill's parent company, Kruger Inc., last Friday.
Park was actually among the dozen of the 50 IAMAW members to be told their jobs were being cut by the company back on Feb. 1. He left western Newfoundland to go work in Fort McMurray, Alta. He did a couple of turnarounds out west before being asked to come back to the mill May 30.
Park jumped at the opportunity to work where he really wants to be and thought a new contract would be a good thing for his future here.
He would not say how we was going to vote, but did say he's now looking at leaving Corner Brook again.
"From what I hear and what I have seen, there was no bargaining from start to finish," he said of the offer that was eventually rejected Wednesday. "The contract we have there now was what (the company) had in their pocket from day one."
Cluett, who also never indicated how he was going to vote, is looking at retiring from his 33 years at the mill when he turns 67 in September. He too was disgusted at the company's refusal to negotiate any of the concessions it has insisted mill workers accept.
"It's just arrogance at the table, trying to negotiate with people who just leave you sitting at the table and don't come back," he said. "That is not negotiations."
Whatever way Cluett voted, it was a little easier decision for him since he can leave the mill at any time.
"If they want to keep tradesmen, they have to pay a competitive wage and give you a contract you can live with," said Cluett.
There is a demand for younger skilled trades workers, like Park, elsewhere in North America and even at major projects throughout Newfoundland and Labrador.
Park said it’s the veteran mill workers who are not close to retirement that are in the toughest predicament.
“The guys in the middle don’t know what way to turn because they have a little bit of time invested in the pension and have a little bit of time left that they can work,” he said. “The guys who have a lot of time invested in the pension are swaying towards keeping this mill going. The younger guys like me are saying, ‘we are marketable and we have competitive wages all across this country ... There’s no need for us to stay here.’”
Park is disappointed that more of Corner Brook’s residents are not publicly showing their concern for the fate of the industry the community was founded on nearly a century ago.
“Four firefighters got more support than the 40-something layoffs that happened in February,” he said, referring to the positions cut at the Corner Brook Fire Department two weeks after the mill layoffs.
“We have always been looked down on because we make a fair wage for this town. To me, we’ve never had any support and that has a lot to do with the situation we’re in today.”
Park said it would have been nice for residents to have maybe rallied outside the mill gates, even if just to show the company what the operation means to the local economy.
“It’s not about the men in there working, but the mill itself,” he said. “The mill is Corner Brook’s heritage and today we have it. Tomorrow, we may not. We’re in a bind now.”
The IAMAW, which was the first of the mill unions to leave negotiations last Friday, was also the first mill union to vote on the new contract. Members of the other unions, all of whom are represented by the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union, vote today and Friday.