On eve of strike, millworkers say: ‘I want more than a t-shirt for feeling essential’ / by Laurn McCauley

Workers at St. Croix Chipping in Baileyville, Maine | https://www.usw.org/

Originally published in the Beacon n December 19, 2022

Workers at the Woodland Pulp mill in Baileyville say that during the pandemic they helped keep the local economy afloat, despite personal risk to themselves and their families, but in return were only given “toilet paper and a t-shirt that said we were ‘essential,’” explained Mark Prenier, a member of United Steelworkers Local 27.

In a video posted to YouTube last week, Premier and two other USW Local 27 members shared some of the challenges they’ve experienced and why they voted earlier this month to strike.

“During COVID we kept production up, we kept production going. You heard all these places that were folding because they couldn’t get materials and a lot of companies depended on materials — the workers in that mill made it happen,” said Glenn Connolly. “They’re the ones that got the trucks out, they’re the ones that got the pulp produced, and because of that the economy survived. Now that we’re asking to help us out, it’s being met with resistance.”

“We ran all through covid without a blip. We staffed the mill no matter what. Many 18-hour shifts, guys out with COVID,” explained Prenier. 

“A lot of companies paid their workers above and beyond because of the dangers. Every one of us could have brought COVID home to our families,” he said, noting they lost a coworker who died after a COVID outbreak at the mill. “What we got during COVID was a thing of toilet paper and a t-shirt that said we were essential on it…I want more than a t-shirt for feeling essential.”

Mill workers in Baileyville Maine fight for a fair contract

According to the Maine AFL-CIO, the millworkers weren’t even offered paid sick time when they came down with COVID. 

Troy Wallace said his work at the mill is “extremely dangerous,” with exposure to a lot of chemicals that could be detrimental to his health. “We’re asked to work long hours, scheduled on your days off for mandatory overtime…we’re looking for a fair wage increase to make an honest living.”

The workers could launch a strike as early as Monday after more 85% of the 123 voting members with United Steelworkers Local 27 voted to reject a contract offer from the company and authorize a strike earlier this month.

According to local USW staff representative Michael Higgins, the mill “offered us very good general wage increases but failed to recognize the cost of living adjustment that we need.”

The union sent a certified letter to the company on Dec. 7 terminating the contract and Higgins said a strike could begin 10 days after the company receives the letter. 

Lauren McCauley is Editor of Maine Beacon. Previously, she was a senior editor at Common Dreams covering national and international politics and progressive news. Lauren also helped produce a number of documentary films, including the award-winning Soundtrack for a Revolution and The Hollywood Complex, as well as one currently in production about civil rights icon James Meredith. Her writing has been featured on Newsweek, BillMoyers.com, TruthDig, Truthout, In These Times,and Extra! the newsletter of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. She currently lives in Kennebunk with her husband, two children, a dog and several chickens. Lauren can be reached at Lauren(at)mainebeacon.com.