[ST. JOHN'S, NL] — A retired mill manager says Corner Brook Pulp and Paper can continue operating, but employees and the company must first be on the same page with a plan on how to navigate the tumultuous newsprint industry.
Stu Weldon worked his way up through the company ranks, starting in the forestry department in 1967, until he retired as woodlands manager in 1998.
Like many others who have faith in the mill’s future, he said the mill has all the right physical components going for it, including the Deer Lake Power plant and ready acess to a timber supply and a seaport.
Amidst the turmoil of restructuring and downsizing in the industry, he said, Corner Brook Pulp and Paper must find the right cost structure if it is to survive.
The future of the mill has been uncertain since Kruger, the mill’s parent company, announced earlier this week unions and the company must hammer out a new collective agreement by one week from today, and then agree to a five-year extension to the time Kruger has to replenish the company’s pension fund.
The unions, which have been without a new labour contract for three years, rejected the pension fund relief measures last month. The objection was not to the five-year extension, but was based on a fear the company’s plan might negatively affect future pensions.
Weldon says the rejection may have been the result of some last-minute panic, and the vote might be different if done again and the contentious component is clarified for union members.
“Kruger was always a tough operator, but were always good to work with,” said Weldon. “You have to remember that one man owns this company. If you owned a small company and needed concessions from your employees to keep it going, but they kick you in the knees, you would have a different reaction than if someone pats you on the back.
“I think this was a time when Kruger should have been patted on the back.”
The concern expressed by the unions were that Section 8(1)(k) of the Solvency Funding Relief Regulations will prevent Kruger from honouring previous pension commitments. Section 8(1)(k) references restrictions on the increase in pension benefits during the first five years of solvency funding relief.
On Wednesday, Service NL Minister Paul Davis, whose department is responsible for the regulation of pension plans in the province, stressed there is nothing in provincial government regulations that would stand in the way of an agreement between Kruger and unions on what has been proposed related to pension commitments.
“This is a critical time in the life of the mill,” Davis said. “And there seems to be some confusion around how provincial regulations might impact what’s currently being proposed by Kruger to its workers. Today I want to inform the employees of Corner Brook Pulp and Paper and the public that our regulations will not impede this process and if they did, we would change the regulations.”
Weldon noted Kruger has reinvested nearly $1 billion into Corner Brook Pulp and Paper since taking it over in 1984. He said if any company can keep the Corner Brook mill running, it’s Kruger.
“I think there is an opportunity to keep this mill going at least for some time to come if cool heads prevail,” Weldon said.