It was standing room only inside the hall and some pensioners were left standing outside, having to wait for another information session to learn more about proposed changes to the financial plans for Corner Brook Pulp and Paper’s retirees.
Both sessions hosted by the Corner Brook Pulp and Paper Union Pensioners Committee at the Elks Lodge were filled to capacity Monday morning and afternoon. Two more sessions are scheduled for the same venue today and the interest level shows just how important preserving pensions is to the retired workers.
Kruger, the paper mill’s parent company, wants to strike a deal with pensioners and current employees that would allow the company to extend the time period it needs to cover the 38 per cent unfunded liability it owes the pension fund from five years to 10 years.
Paul Gushue retired one year ago from one of the top unionized jobs inside the mill as machine tender on the No. 7 paper machine. He arrived a little late for the afternoon session and was one of the few who couldn’t get in.
He doesn’t mind that as much as he minds the thought of losing some of the pension he worked 40 years to build up.
“I’ve been out one year and they are already talking about picking at my pension,” said a disgusted Gushue. “It turns my stomach. I stayed behind two extra years working. I could have walked out when I was 55, but I stayed for a few more fringe benefits and now they want to take them.”
Added to those concerns is the frustration of already having had a 10 per cent wage deferral the mill’s unions agreed to in 2010 still not paid back by the company.
“It’s not our fault the company didn’t put back into the pension fund,” said Gushue. “They should have been forced to put into it. Government should not have let them out of it. We didn’t let them out of it.”
Peter Noseworthy also did not get into Monday’s meeting. He is set to retire from his job in the mill’s thermo-mechanical pulping plant in June and is obviously just as concerned.
“I have to know what I’m looking forward to,” said Noseworthy. “For some of the fellas that are drawing their pension from 20 years ago, their pension probably wasn’t that great to start with. To have that reduced by 38 per cent would be disastrous for them. How are they going to live?”
There are about 600 mill pensioners — or spouses of pensioners who have died since their retirement. They will all get to vote on the proposed changes once the committee has all of the information and the company’s intentions in writing.
Gerald Fifield was among the pensioners who sat through the Monday afternoon session.
“We really don’t know what’s going on yet,” said Fifield, who retired from his job as a pipefitter March 1. “We’re going to wait until later on and see what happens after we have meetings with the company. We have to process the information we have so far and start thinking about how we’re going to vote.”
Fifield said the meeting was a great help.
“We all really appreciate what the guys on this committee have been doing for us,” he said. “We need someone to be doing this, so it’s good to know we have someone fighting for us.”
Gerald Parsons, the committee’s spokesman, said the committee is not going to tell the pensioners how to vote. He is hoping all pensioners, and the spouses of deceased pensioners, will inform themselves so they know what they are doing when it comes time to cast a ballot.
In the meantime, the committee did have a meeting late last week with Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy and Finance Minister Tom Marshall. They know government cannot put money towards the unfunded liability the company is responsible for, but the committee hopes the provincial government can make sure Kruger uphold its end of any deal that may be struck.
“We are telling the company and the government that, if the company wants to go from five to 10 years to pay back the unfunded liability, they better have some guarantees in place that they are going to make their payments,” explained Parsons. “The first time a payment is not made, we have got to know about it and then somebody has got to act on it.”
“We’re OK with it if there are some guarantees. We think government would be able to put pressure in the right place to make sure we got those guarantees.”
The pensioners have been told their pensions are safe as long as the mill is operating, but the company needs this concession in order to keep the mill going.
The final decision is not only up to the pensioners. In addition to having at least 2/3 of their membership agree to any changes in the pension funding plan, the same rate of approval must be achieved from the current unionized mill employees, who would also be affected by changes in the plan.
Both groups will vote separately. If either group rejects the changes, the entire proposal would be rejected.
Parsons said a larger venue will be booked for upcoming meetings between the pensioners and the company.
The Western Star