CORNER BROOK Finance Minister Tom Marshall was in MHA mode Saturday, keeping the lines of communication open between government and former and current Corner Brook Pulp and Paper employees concerned about the mill's future.
The Tory legislature member for Humber East and Vaughn Granter, the minister's counterpart from Humber West took some time to meet with retiree and union representatives to update them on the unfolding process of determining the operation's viability.
After having coffee with pensioners Gerald Parsons and Ed Anstey and current employee Paul Humber, who is vice-president of the CEP Local 242 papermakers union, Marshall told The Western Star what he told them.
Government has already publicly said it would provide assistance if the company and its current and former workers can come to an agreement on a sustainability plan for the future. Now that the company and its former and active workers have come to an agreement on a five-year extension for Kruger Inc. to meet its obligations to the unfunded portion of the company pension fund, Corner Brook Pulp and Paper still has to come to terms with its two skilled trades unions before a full assessment of the operation can be finalized.
Both Local 96 of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, which represents electricians in the mill, and Lodge 1567 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers rejected contact offers that were accepted by four other mill unions in June.
Marshall confirmed Saturday that talks between the company and the two unions will soon resume, with three days scheduled for the sides to sit together at the bargaining table from Sept. 5-7.
In addition to the company's ongoing talks with bankers regarding its financial state, added Marshall, there are currently audits being done on both the financial statements and the infrastructure needs at both the paper mill in Corner Brook and at the Deer Lake Power plant that provides the mill with electricity.
"We are expecting a preliminary report on the mill (infrastructure) next week," said Marshall. "A final report on the power company is coming as well. Then there will be discussions on that."
Marshall is expecting the financial audit in the next two weeks also. He noted that audit is being done by a major firm from Newfoundland and Labrador and not Price Waterhouse Cooper, the accounting firm that normally does the company's books.
Marshall was permitted by Joseph Kruger to see the company's financial audit done by Price Waterhouse Cooper earlier this year and was given authorization by the mill's owner to disclose what he had seen to the unions during contract negotiations amid suspicion the company was doing better than it was proclaiming.
"There's another fresh set of eyes on the financial statements being undertaken by another major firm just to provide assurance," Marshall said of the current audit being done. "I personally don't expect there will be any major change, but to get something independent will certainly help us and will probably help them."
Exactly how government plans to help the situation has not yet been announced, though it is expected to come largely in the form of capital expenditures to upgrade infrastructure at the paper mill and the power plant.
Concerns have been raised that the bulk of the money will be spent in Deer Lake because that will be a valuable asset should the mill cease making paper.
"There has been no decision and I have not been part of any discussion that says this percentage is going here and this percentage is going there," said Marshall. "We're waiting for those reports. Then there obviously has to be discussions with the ownership in terms of what the engineering firm says has to be done."
The pensioners want assurance that the sustainability plan the company eventually presents to government is a long-term plan, now that former and current workers have given their own long-term commitment by granting the company the requested pension funding relief measures.
"I don't think (the length of the company's plan) is carved in stone, but obviously it would have to be a plan that shows the sustainability of the mill over the medium and long term," said Marshall. "It's a tough industry and it's evolving. We won't know until we have all the information. There is information coming and obviously it has our attention."
Government has been adamant that it will not simply fork over cash to subsidize the company's bottom line. That, said Marshall, includes not directly helping to finance the company's obligations to the unfunded portion of the pension fund.
"Government can't afford to go in and subsidize pension plans," he said. "If we can support the mill, the company is going to allocate its resources to meet its obligations and the pension plan is a legally binding obligation they have to deal with."
Anstey and Parsons declined to comment on Saturday's meeting with the minister and Granter. Humber never said much either, other than that both the unions and the pensioners appreciated the two MHAs telling them what they know of the status of their livelihoods from government's perspective.
"It's vital to keep the lines of communication open," said Humber. "Government plays a big role in all of this and we are glad we're at the table with them."