SKOWHEGAN — Millwrights in the machinists union at the Sappi North America paper mill in Skowhegan have voted to accept a new three-year contract, avoiding a strike that would have begun Friday.

Members of Local 2740 of the International Association of Machinists voted overwhelmingly Thursday evening to ratify the new contract, according to a news release from the Maine AFL-CIO.

“The contract ratification comes after an earlier contract offer was unanimously rejected in a vote last week, when the union then voted to authorize a strike,” Sarah Bigney, at Maine AFL-CIO offices in Augusta, said Friday in the release. “The union went back to the bargaining table with Sappi and won significant improvements. They voted last night to ratify that offer.”

The new three-year contract runs from Feb. 1, which was Friday, through Jan. 31, 2022.

It includes wage increases of 3 percent the first year, 2.25 percent the second year and 2.5 percent in the third and final year of the contract.

Bigney described it as a significant wage increase.

The contract also includes improved dental and safety insurance.

She said the union also “beat back” provisions the company had sought that would have weakened the grievance procedure around the overtime list of eligible names.

Olga Karagiannis, manager of corporate communications at Sappi offices in Boston, said the new contract is good news.

“We are pleased that our employees represented by the IAM have ratified a new three-year labor agreement,” she said in an email to the Morning Sentinel.

George Edwards, machinists District 4 business representative, said members are satisfied with the new contract. Had they not been, they would have been on strike Friday.

“The members decided the first contract offer from the company was unacceptable,” Edwards said in the news release. “I’m proud of them for staying unified and sticking together to get what they deserve. They work hard, and they deserve to be treated fairly.”

Contacted by phone Friday afternoon, Edwards said the union came close to striking, with the grievance procedure around the overtime list being at front and center of the deadlock.

“Last Friday we were going on strike; there was no doubt,” Edwards said. “The company came back on Monday and worked some details out with us. One of them was the grievance procedure. It ended up working out good.”

Edwards said starting pay for a millwright is about $31 an hour, but in order to get to be a designated millwright, a person has to undergo years of training in all aspects of being a machinist.

He said a millwright has to know how to fix all the machines and equipment, whether it be the paper machine inside the plant or a loader out in the yard.

“There’s none in the state of Maine right now. You can’t find millwrights anywhere,” he said. “Each paper mill is stealing to get them. It’s part of the educational issue that we’re having in the state of Maine as far as not having the right skills, including Bath Iron Works, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Everybody’s going away, so we’re actually trying to start an apprenticeship program for millwrights.”

Edwards said there is mandatory overtime at the Sappi mill, but it was the overtime list that was a sticking point.

“The company came out with this crazy grievance procedure when it came to overtime, which in our eyes — that’s what was one of the number one things to go on strike — was union busting. They ended up taking it off the table at the last minute.”

He said the grievance procedure took time and cost the union a lot of money each time there was a grievance.

“They knew it was a big issue. It was union busting,” he said. “It was the start of the end, and once they realized that we were going to strike, they took it off the table.”

Wes Perry, a millwright and president of Machinist Local 2740, said the company and the union finally reached an agreement Thursday night.

“The members won this contract by standing strong together,” he said in the release. “We won our fair share of the wealth we create for this company. It feels like a new day on the shop floor. Members are proud and feel the dignity of standing together.”

Machinists Local 2740 has 74 members.

Sappi North America completed a $200 million investment in new paper machine technology in September. Investments in Paper Machine No. 1 and the wood room at the Somerset Mill on U.S. Route 201 in Skowhegan reflected growth in paper-based packaging while maintaining Sappi’s leadership in the graphic paper market.

Annual production capacity at the mill will increase to almost 1 million tons per year.

The $200 million had been invested over a 16-month period to compete globally in the paperboard market, making luxury packaging and folding cartons for food products and can and jar labels. Products include pet food bags, tapes, filters, paper medical products, even popcorn bags and take-out boxes for Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuit franchises.

The investment expands the mill’s capability and capacity to make consumer-based packaging as well as the coated paper the company is known for.

The Sappi Somerset mill employs about 800 people, 75 percent of whom are represented by four trade unions: United Steelworkers; the International Association of Machinists; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; and Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America.

It’s a publicly traded company with about 1,300 employees in Maine, including those at the Westbrook mill and in business offices. The company has a $123 million annual payroll plus $32 million in offered benefits.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow


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