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USW members, Sappi settle contract

In a vote Friday, members of United Steelworkers Local 11-63 approved the most recent contract offer from Sappi Fine Paper.

USW Local 11-63 members had been working without a new contract since May because the two sides could not agree on a number of issues including retiree benefits, insurance deductible and holiday pay. The union ¬represents approximately 400 of the approximately 715 workers at the Cloquet Sappi mill.

USW Local 11-63 President Brady Nelson said the two biggest sticking points - a company proposal to take away Medicare B supplement and retiree life insurance for any union members with fewer than 15 years at the company - were taken off the table entirely in the latest company offer, leaving the benefits as agreed in the previous contract.

Still, negotiated concessions mean workers will see an increase in the deductible on their health insurance in January 2015, Nelson said. As well, employees who are on long-term leave because of medical issues, military or other reasons will receive holiday pay for the first 60 days of their leave rather than the 30 days previously proposed by company negotiators.

"In return, we gave up a half percent of wage increase in the final year of the contract," Nelson said, explaining that the 30-month contract (retroactive to May 14, 2012) includes increases of 2 percent in each of the first two years and 1.5 percent in the final year.

Late last month, when the union members gave leaders strike authorization, Sappi issued a press release expressing disappointment in the vote.

Both sides worked hard to get matters resolved, Nelson said.

On Monday, Dec. 3, the union announced that it had a contract it would let workers vote up or down Friday. News broke through the union's new Twitter and Facebook page Friday that members had voted to accept the new contract offer.

"We feel it's a partial victory," Nelson said Wednesday. "There was some give and take - that's the nature of negotiations - but we got the big concessions that were dividing the membership off the table."

Sappi Fine Paper North America corporate office issued a press release Saturday stating simply that Sappi and the United Steelworkers had ratified the new contract and noted that "with contract negotiations now complete, the Cloquet mill can continue to concentrate on producing world-class paper and completing the $170 million capital project to convert the pulp mill to specialized cellulose."