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Union votes to allow strike option

In a vote Tuesday night, members of United Steelworkers Local 11-63 - which ¬represents almost 400 of the approximately 715 workers at the Cloquet Sappi Mill - authorized union leadership to call a strike if it chooses to do so.

The vote doesn't mean that workers will strike, but simply authorizes union leaders to call a strike if they believe one is needed as the union and company try to reach a contract agreement. Sappi employees have been working without a new contract since May.

The company said it is offering a very competitive package.

Although USW Local 11-63 President Brady Nelson declined comment Wednesday, the Sappi Fine Paper North America corporate office issued a press release that afternoon stating the company was "disappointed" with the vote.

"Even though such a vote is not uncommon, and does not mean a strike will occur, we are very disappointed in the membership's action, given our fair and competitive contract package," said Rick Dwyer, managing director of the Cloquet mill in the press release.

USW Local 11-63 held an informational picket outside the mill on Oct. 23. At that time, Nelson said issues with the contract included elimination of some retiree benefits for younger union members, an increase in the medical insurance deductible and limitations to holiday pay accrued while employees are off work due to accident, illness, or military leave, something the union gave up wages and benefits to gain during the 2007 negotiations.

In Wednesday's press release, the company pointed to the ongoing $170 million capital project to convert the pulp mill to specialized cellulose - a purer form of cellulose that can be made into a fabric for clothing, wet wipes and other consumer products - as a move that "will help provide attractive jobs for years to come."

The final line of the Sappi press release stated the following: "We are hopeful that our Cloquet employees represented by the USW, on reflection, will ratify the contract. However, in the event the Steelworkers strike, we will fully pursue our legally protected right to operate the mill and supply our customers and are prepared to do so."

Nelson said the union would issue a statement to the media at some time in the future.