Rally scheduled for Bucksport mill employees on final day of work

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BUCKSPORT — Some came out with grim faces while others smiled and stopped to shake hands and chat with friends about days gone by.

But all millworkers who filed out of the Verso Paper mill Wednesday got applause from a crowd of more than 100 people who gathered at the main gate to mark the final shift at the 84-year-old papermaking facility.

“It’s pretty down,” millworker Travis French, 36, of Ellsworth said of the mood in the mill that day as he stood across the street. He held his toddler daughter, Harper, in his arms as he walked away from his last shift at the mill, where he has worked since 2009.

“It’s the end of an era,” he added. “Everyone is losing their jobs.”

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French said he is not sure what he will do next for work.

“I’ve got some applications out,” he said, but he hadn’t had any responses yet. “It will be hard for a little while, but I guess life will go on.”

Many workers declined interviews with members of the media as they filed out through the throng, walking along a marked crosswalk that connects the mill’s main gate to a parking lot across the street. A line of well-wishers stood on either side of the crosswalk, shaking hands with workers and thanking them as they filed past.

Bucksport resident Bill Dulong, a mill employee for 37 years, said he had mixed emotions about his final day at work.

“I was ready to retire anyway, but not like this,” Dulong said with a lunch basket hanging from the crook of his left arm as he spoke. “It’s a sad ending to something that was really great.”

Wednesday marked the final shift for the vast majority of 570 workers at the mill. Verso announced Oct. 1 it was shutting down by the end of the year. Earlier this month, Verso agreed to sell the mill to AIM Development next month for approximately $60 million.

AIM Development, a subsidiary of Montreal-based American Iron & Metal, is not expected to resume papermaking operations at the mill, which first began operations in 1930. AIM has not said what its plans are, but the scrap metal firm is expected to dismantle the mill and seek to redevelop the 250-acre waterfront property, similar to what it is doing with another former Verso mill in Sartell, Minnesota.

Dulong said the permanent loss of the property’s manufacturing capability would not be good for Bucksport.

“We’d like to see it going,” Dulong said of the mill. “Just to junk it — that’s not the way we wanted to go out.”

Verso has said the closure of the mill is a separate issue, but many workers believe the mill’s shutdown is part of the company’s plans to merge with NewPage, its primary competitor in the coated paper market.

The proposed $1.4 billion merger between Verso and NewPage remains under review by the U.S. Department of Justice. In October, NewPage agreed to sell its mill in Rumford to Canadian company Catalyst Paper to address concerns the joint company would control too much of the North American market for coated paper.

Most of the Bucksport mill’s 570 workers are losing their jobs with the closure of the facility, which has specialized in making coated paper for use in magazines and catalogs. The mill property includes two power generation facilities, which AIM has said it will continue to operate after it takes over the mill. Fifty to 60 people work in those power-generation plants, one of which burns natural gas and the other of which uses biomass fuel.

The millworkers are expected to receive their regular paychecks through the end of the month. When they might receive their severance pay, however, is a point of contention.

Verso has said it has a contract with unions who represent workers at the mill to pay all severance within 90 days of termination. However, the unions and a broad spectrum of state officials have countered, arguing state law requires workers be paid their full severance within one pay period of receiving their final regular paycheck.

The severance issue and the sale of the mill are the subject of a lawsuit the International Association of Machinists union filed in federal court Monday. The union alleges the sale is a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. By scrapping the mill, Verso is trying to monopolize the market for coated paper, according to the suit.

The union is seeking a court injunction that, among other things, would require Verso to more aggressively solicit offers from companies that would continue to operate the mill as a papermaking facility.

Hearings on the union’s lawsuit have been set for U.S. District Court in Bangor. A hearing on the issue of severance pay will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 23. Another on the union’s antitrust claims has been scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015.

Town Manager Derik Goodine has said property taxes from the mill make up about 44 percent of the town’s approximate $12 million annual budget. The valuation of the paper mill is $317 million while the adjacent power generation plants have a separate valuation of $41 million combined, he has said.

Town officials have said 24 percent of the mill’s workers live in Bucksport, which means about 140 residents are losing their jobs with the mill closure. The mill has employees living in all 16 counties in Maine.

The Bucksport mill’s origins date to the Great Depression, when it opened as Maine Seaboard Paper Co. and produced newsprint. Time Inc. purchased the mill in 1946 and hired St. Regis to operate it, producing the coated paper for which the Bucksport mill became known.

St. Regis purchased the mill in 1947 and over the next 3½ decades periodically expanded and improved the mill to keep up with modern technology. Champion International purchased the mill in 1984, and IP bought Champion, including its mills in Bucksport and Jay, in 2000. IP sold the Maine mills to Verso in 2006.

The mill employed about 1,000 people in 2000, but its workforce has since shrunk to roughly 800 employees in 2005, then to around 570 in 2014.

The closure of the Bucksport mill is the latest development to send waves through Maine’s declining pulp and paper manufacturing industry.

Old Town Fuel & Fiber closed its pulp mill in mid-August and laid off about 180 workers. Patriarch Partners, which purchased the former Georgia-Pacific mill in Old Town out of bankruptcy for $19 million in 2008, is looking to sell the facility.

On Dec. 2, Hackman Capital Partners successfully bid $5.4 million for the shuttered Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket. That mill laid off 212 workers from a total of 256 in February, then filed for bankruptcy in September.

Goodine declined to comment Wednesday about the International Association of Machinists’ legal claims against Verso. He joined other town and elected state officials outside the gates to greet the departing workers.

Goodine said the town wants the same outcomes the union does.

“As always, we support the rights of the workers to get their severance in time and in the appropriate amounts,” he said. “Also, while it appears less and less of a possibility, we also hold out hope that a company will step forward to reopen the mill and that AIM will allow that to happen if it is a real offer.”

Goodine said there still are a lot of unknowns about the future of the facility and about how the town’s finances will be affected in the long term. But he said it is his job to try to help figure that out and that he feels a duty to those who are losing their jobs at the mill.

“Seeing those faces come out of the mill, it’s not a happy day. It’s not a happy moment,” Goodine said.

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