CORNER BROOK — He won't say what the province will do to help Corner Brook Pulp and Paper if the time comes for government to step in with assistance, but Finance Minister Tom Marshall said both the company and its workers have mentioned the need for infrastructure upgrades.
Four of six unions, who were all told by parent company Kruger Inc. they needed to agree with new labour contracts imposed by the company, have approved those new collective agreements.
But that is not enough for the provincial government to step in.
Marshall, who is the Tory legislature member for Humber East, said the new contracts are a major step forward to keeping the mill viable, but the company still needs to work out deals with the two skilled trades unions that have not come to terms on new contracts.
The government also won't be helping until the issue of the company's request for funding relief measures or its pension fund have been approved by the unions and retirees.
Kruger has said the pension plan issue has to be resolved by Aug. 22, so it is not likely the province will be offering its direct help until some time after that date.
Marshall said the company has a record of investing in its mill in Corner Brook, but restricted cash flow has slowed that sort of investment in recent years. Help in that regard is something that has been mentioned by both the employer and its workers, he said.
"I always remember comparing investments in the mill made by Kruger, compared to (competitor) Abitibi-Bowater and there was no comparison," Marshall said of Kruger's history of putting money back into the mill. "But you have to generate cash in order to do that. It's been a concern that both the workers and the company have indicated. There needs to be improvements in the mill and there are other things as well."
Bruce Randell is president of Local 242 of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union. He said money needs to be spent to upgrade the mill's wood room and its thermo-mechanical pulping department.
He said ceilings throughout the mill also need to be assessed and repaired.
If government is going to spend any money on Corner Brook Pulp and Paper, Randell said it has to be spent on things like that and not just handed over to the company for it to spend as it sees fit.
"If they say they are not going to spend money in the mill and will do something else with it, the mill is doomed," Randell said of the need.
In a letter from Kruger issued moments after contract voting last Friday night, the company referred to finalizing its "assessment of the mill's viability" in light of the contract rejection by the skilled trades unions and continuing to apply "necessary cost-cutting measures."
Marshall said he's not sure what that refers to exactly, but assumes it means the company will continue to be on the lookout for efficiencies.
"The mills that survive will be the ones constantly looking for ways to make improvements in the way they do things," said the minister.
The contract agreed to by four of the five CEP unions also includes a commitment to form a joint committee from the company and unions to identify and implement an additional four per cent savings in labour costs in the 90 days following ratification of the contract.
Marshall said that is a detail of the contract that both sides have agreed to take on by approving the collective agreements.
"What I think will be good by having a committee is that they will be talking to each other," said Marshall. "I have heard over time that there has been distrust ... I think the company should listen to its workers more and then let the company manage."