© Geraldine Brophy
Wood is taken to be processed at Corner Brook Pulp and Paper Thursday, Jan. 3. 2013.
CORNER BROOK — Things could always get worse, but Bruce Randell, head of the papermakers union at Corner Brook Pulp and Paper, hopes 2013 will be a better year than the last one.
Last year was easily one of the more dismal in the nearly 88-year history of the newsprint mill.
It started out with rumours of big job losses last winter, which did eventually become a reality when around 50 employees got their pink slips in early February. Then came a contentious request from the company to have an extension to the amount of time it had to give up to its financial obligations to the pensions of both current and retired mill workers.
The company was granted that extension, but not before some bitter negotiations over new contracts to replace the long-expired ones the mill’s unionized employees were working under. Four of the six unions inside the mill agreed to concession-laden contracts in June, while a fifth union — Local 96, representing electricians —held out until October before also agreeing.
The sixth union, Lodge 1567 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, have still not come to an agreement with the company.
Two other unions outside the mill are also without new contracts. Woodlands employees rejected the contract offered to them in November, while workers at Deer Lake Power have yet to commence negotiations.
Then, in December, Corner Brook Pulp and Paper announced it was shutting down one of its two paper machines for a 15-day period. The machine is scheduled to start production again today.
All of this happened in the context of an industry that continues to struggle globally with low demand for the newsprint product and a high Canadian dollar. The provincial government has made a commitment to help out the company once it can work things out with its workers and present a long-term sustainability plan.
“When everybody gets settled way, hopefully the company, the unions and government can see if we construct a better future for this mill for the long term,” said Randell, president of Local 242 of the Communications, Energy and Papermakers union, the second largest union in the mill.
“I’m optimistic we will be able to do that in 2013.”
As Randell has said publicly before, the mill’s infrastructure needs investment and upgrading in order for the operation to maintain competitiveness in a tough marketplace that has seen production curtailed and many plants closed outright.
“We don’t need a month-by-month plan,” he said. “We need a plan that will allow us to keep going for the next 10 years and beyond. If the right things are put in place, there is no reason why this mill can’t be one of the last ones to shut.”
Randell said it is frustrating not seeing those investments being made yet, more than six months after the four unions — including the two biggest locals, Local 64 and Local 242 — agreed to concessions to keep the mill going.
“What we were told in the summer was that, if the bigger unions would sign on, then that would be a way forward and that the smaller unions in the mill ... if they didn’t sign, would not hinder us from sitting down together and finding a long-term plan for the mill,” he said. “Now, they are holding everything up because of one small trade union in the mill? That doesn’t make sense.”
The provincial government has not announced exactly how it is willing to help, but indications are the assistance would include money for upgrading infrastructure. In November, Finance Minister Tom Marshall said the province was still gathering information about the mill’s operation before signing off on any plan.
Marshall had hoped to have the process completed by the end of the year, but no announcements have been made yet.
The Western Star requested interviews regarding the outlook for 2013 with both the general manager of Corner Brook Pulp and Paper and with the head offices of parent company Kruger Inc. in Montreal, but the company declined to discuss the coming year at this point in time.