Against the tide

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You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. That’s about where the Dunderdale government finds itself on the forestry file.

The Corner Brook Pulp and Paper mill has been teetering on the edge for months now. In fact, owner Joseph Kruger says the company has been bleeding cash for years.

After weeks of gut-wrenching bargaining, more bargaining and ultimatums, today is D-Day for the province’s last operating mill.

On Wednesday, skilled trades workers rejected the company’s final demand for concessions. The majority of workers, members of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP), must decide by today. Their national leader recommended acceptance, but the local leadership is tight-lipped.

Paper mills have been falling like dominoes in recent years, particularly in Eastern Canada.

Last month, union members at another Kruger mill, in Sept-Iles, Que., rejected similar concessions. As he did with Corner Brook workers, Kruger told the Quebec employees their mill would close if concessions were not accepted.

So far, Premier Kathy Dunderdale has refused to offer any sort of bailout for the Corner Brook mill, but she’s not saying what other support might be on the table.

To get an idea of the pressures on governments to act in such crises, you need only look at an open letter by CEP president Dave Coles issued Wednesday in reaction to the closure of the Resolute Forest Products mill in Liverpool, N.S.

In it, Coles issues a startling plea:

“Is it possible that out of these ashes there may still be a future for forestry in Nova Scotia? I say yes, but only if the Nova Scotia government acts quickly and decisively to acquire the timberlands of Resolute and integrate them into Nova Scotia’s public forests.”

Then-premier Danny Williams received all-party support when he expropriated land and water rights in the wake of AbitibiBowater’s closure of the Grand Falls-Windsor mill in 2008.

But the fallout was less than stellar.

The province accidentally expropriated the mill property, along with its expensive cleanup bill, and Abitibi won a $130-million settlement after launching a grievance under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

And then there’s the inevitable optics problem for potential investors. So far, there have been no serious prospects for resurrecting the Grand Falls mill.

Governments don’t want to — or appear to — roll over and play dead in these situations, but throwing good money after bad, or nationalizing private industries, comes with its own headaches. That’s particularly true in the increasingly cut-throat world of international corporatism.

It’s the 11th hour in Corner Brook. Even if concessions are accepted, there’s clearly no guarantee the mill will be viable.

The government can offer indirect support, aid for displaced workers and even a bit of tough talk. But preventing an industry from going under must sometimes feel like trying to stop the tide.

Organizations: Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, Resolute Forest Products, AbitibiBowater North American Free Trade Agreement.And then

Geographic location: Corner Brook, Nova Scotia, Eastern Canada.Last Sept-Iles Quebec Liverpool Abitibi Grand Falls

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  • Eli
    June 22, 2012 - 16:35

    Two points come to mind. One: If the workers accept concessions and the mill goes down the pike in a few years, benefits or entltlements will be based on the conditions of the new contract. They'll be much less than they stand to gain now. Secondly: the government is almost threatening the workers to accept so it won't have the headache of propping up the workers like Grand Falls. Anyone forget the Deer Lake Power Station and who owns that?

  • William Daniels
    June 22, 2012 - 16:22

    "Less than stellar". Thats an understatement. Lest we forget Dunderdales involvement.