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Business and Economy

Skowhegan paper mill workers rally for better wages, benefits

sappi workers 2.jpg
Nicole Ogrysko
/
Maine Public
Workers at the Sappi paper mill in Skowhegan rallied for better wages and benefits on Feb. 24, 2022.

Union workers at the Sappi paper mill in Skowhegan returned on Thursday to rally for higher wages and better benefits, key elements of what they say is a fair contract.

Many of the union workers say they've taken notice of what other labor organizations across the country have done in the last year, and it's inspired them to do the same.

Several dozen members of the United Steelworkers Local 9 stood outside their union hall Thursday afternoon to rally for a new contract. The old one expired in August, and union leaders have been negotiating with the Sappi mill since then. They say the company wants to cover less and raise out-of-pocket health insurance costs for union workers.

Pat Carleton, Local 9 president, said Sappi proposed raising wages by 3% annually for the next three years. But he says it's not enough.

"Every time we've negotiated with this company, we've lost purchasing power. If there ever was a time for our members to stand up, it's today," Carleton said. "You've seen this all over the country, where the labor movement is alive and well. And we have a lot of young members here who have grabbed on to that and said, 'What about us?'"

Some 96% of union workers rejected the company's last offer two weeks ago.

Local 9 members rallied last week as a way to push for higher wages and better health care and retirement benefits. Now they're back at the union hall in Skowhegan, this time with more workers and a few more supporters.

"I'm more than happy to help businesses out that make sure that Mainers get opportunities," said Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, who was one of the supporters who stood on the side of the road with the union workers. "This is another situation where I just want to be here to say 'Hey, I know what it's like, I'm with you. I'll push. I'll push the company to do the right thing.' Hopefully they do it on their own."

Jackson said he has a personal connection to the paper mill. He spent a summer working for the mill as a high school student in 1986.

Sappi North America says it offered a proposal that included wage increases, changes to the defined benefit pension plan and an extra payment of $5,000 for its workers, which it says is worth an extra 5.5% of an average union worker's annual earnings. Sappi says that exceeds anything previously offered in the industry in recent years.

sappi workers 1.jpg
Nicole Ogrysko
/
Maine Public
Workers at the Sappi paper mill in Skowhegan rallied for better wages and benefits on Feb. 24, 2022.

Justin Shaw, the union's executive vice president, said the company's latest proposal would have been competitive a few years ago, but not now, when labor unions across the country are demanding a better deal and often getting higher wages in return.

"We're losing people out of this mill to go to other places because the vacation time, the health insurance, the wages, the family time," said Shaw, who has worked for Sappi for 14 years. "That's a big thing with our young members, the quality of life outside of the mill."

Health care improvements are another big sticking point for the paper mill workers, said Cynthia Phinney, president of the Maine AFL-CIO.

Phinney said health care has been a sticking point for union members at the paper mill, and the topic has vexed many labor organizations and their employers at the bargaining table. The pandemic, she said, has inspired labor action from workers at the Sappi mill and at other organizations across Maine.

"We're at a moment when workers are really coming together to say, 'We're worth more,' and standing up to say, 'We're worth more, and it should show in our paychecks, our conditions and our benefits,'" Phinney said.

Nathaniel Thomas, who has worked for Sappi for five years, said he wants to stay there long enough to retire with the company. But he wants Sappi to offer higher wages, which he said will help him pay for essentials and the new house that he just bought.

"It would allow me not to live paycheck to paycheck," he said "People think we make beaucoup bucks at a paper company. But when people think of those beaucoup bucks, that was 40 years ago in the 1980s when there were paper mills abound."

If Sappi doesn't raise wages or offer better wages, Thomas says he'd look for another job at another paper mill. He acknowledges there are fewer mills in Maine today, but says Sappi isn't the only game in town.

Carleton, the union president, said they'll sit down with the company next week to talk about the next steps. He hopes Sappi will take notice of the rally, he said.

In a statement, Sappi said it is "disappointed" the union rejected the company's proposal. It declined to comment further, citing ongoing negotiations.