MAINE (From news reports) -- Members of United Steelworkers Local 449 have voted overwhelming to ratify a new five-year contract that raises wages, improves benefits and increases the number of union jobs at the Huhtamaki paper packaging mill in Waterville.
An initial contract proposal was rejected by 70% of the workers, so negotiators went back to the table to address concerns of members, according to a news release.
The second proposal was approved by nearly 70% of members.
The contract includes:
• Wage increases of 2.85% in the first year, 2.5% in the second year, 2.5% in the third year, 2.75% in the fourth year and 3% in the fifth year.
• A 50-cent wage increase on top of the 2.5% increase in the first year for 140 workers in the plant's smooth finish department.
• Six weeks of paid vacation for workers with 35 years of service, which will impact 75 employees at the mill.
• Improvements to disability, dental and life insurance coverage.
• An increase of between 30 and 40 new union jobs at the mill.
"This is one of the best contracts I've seen in the 25 years I've worked at Huhtamaki," Lee Drouin, president of USW Local 449, said in the release. "Some of our veteran employees who have been here 30 or 40 years also say this is the best contract they've ever seen. We haven't seen wage increases and benefit gains like this in a long time."
Union leaders said the negotiations were collaborative and credited the company for listening to the concerns of its workers.
"I'm very pleased with this contract," Mike Higgins, labor representative for USW 449, said in the release. "The wages are well above industry standards for the paper sector. Getting back that six weeks of vacation was very important to our older folks who remember losing it back in 2002.
"We had a great relationship with company representatives at the bargaining table and there wasn't a lot of fighting or contention. The company was very receptive to what we had to say and we were very receptive to what the company had to say."
The local represents 482 workers at the mill, which makes compostable paper plates. It's a division of Huhtamaki North America, which has 18 production units and more than 3,600 employees in the U.S. and Mexico, and revenue of over $1 billion.
Huhtamaki, specializing in food packaging, was founded in 1920 by entrepreneur Heikki Huhtamäki. It's based in Espoo, Finland, with 77 manufacturing units and 24 sales offices in 34 countries, according to its website.
In January 2019, the Waterville plant, on the Fairfield town line, suffered a fire that drew responses from 15 neighboring communities.