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New deal with Skowhegan paper mill includes some of the best wage increases in decades, union says

Somerset mill workers rallied outside their union hall on Feb. 24, 2022.
Nicole Ogrysko
Maine Public
Somerset mill workers rallied outside their union hall on Feb. 24, 2022.

Days away from a strike, the local United Steelworkers union has a new contract with the Sappi paper mill in Skowhegan.

It includes 3% wage increases for each of the next three years, plus a $5,000 bonus for all employees.

The union and the company also agreed to raise base wages by $2 over the next year, in exchange for more training and a few extra duties.

The pay increases are some of the best ever in the Maine paper industry, if not the country, said Pat Carleton, president of the United Steelworkers Local 9, which represents 463 employees at the Somerset mill.

All told, the pay increases amount to nearly 16% over the course of the next three years, he added.

"Certainly in the 1980s and the early 1990s across the country, paper mills were doing very, very well, and we saw some 3% and some 3.5%," he said. "But we haven't seen anything of this magnitude since probably the early 1990s."

Carleton said mill workers have typically seen wage increases that range from 1-to-2% over the last two decades, with rising health insurance costs eating into their pay.

That shouldn't happen this time, he said, because the new contract includes a cap on out-of-pocket health insurance costs for workers.

It also includes a $5,000 lump sum for former mill workers who retired after the last agreement expired but before the new one was ratified.

The union's contract with Sappi expired back in August, and the two have been trying to reach a new deal since then. Union workers held a rally last month, which Carleton says got a lot of attention.

Mill workers were "nail bitingly close" to a strike earlier this week, Carleton said. But

"They really wanted to be recognized throughout this whole pandemic for working sometimes three or four weeks in a row without a day off and sometimes being stuck in 24-hour shifts," he said. "I think they got tired of salary folks sitting home and those guys in the mill and girls in the mill making the product. That was really one of the things that kept everyone tight and together, because they were together so much in the mill."

In a statement, Sappi North America said it is pleased the union accepted the new proposal, which it described as containing "a number of significant improvements for our employees." The company declined to comment further.