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Interview

Sonny Perry, Citizen's Coalition to Save the Mill in Dalhousie



TML Daily: Can you give us some information on the mill itself and how the closure would affect the people of the region?

Sonny Perry: On November 29, 2007, AbitibiBowater told us that they were going to shut down the mill permanently on January 31, 2008. This mill produces newsprint and has been in operation since the 1930s. There are roughly 400 workers inside the mill and outside I would say that there are another 150 workers, including the woodland workers and the longshoremen of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) who work at the wharf. If the newsprint mill closes, a lot of sawmills that supply this mill with chips are going to be in trouble. These sawmills work for other businesses too but they are going to be affected by the closure, that is sure. The longshoremen who load the paper onto the boats for shipping are also going to be seriously affected. This newsprint is mostly exported abroad. Very little of it is for the internal market.

The mill is in Dalhousie and it has been the most important source of revenue for the town since it was built. The total population of Dalhousie is about 4,000 people. It is part of Restigouche County. I would say that people from all over Restigouche work at the mill and in the sawmills. The jobs at the paper mill are good paying jobs. When a mill like this goes down, especially in our situation where it is the main source of revenue, all the businesses are going to be affected. The spin-off from these jobs is unbelievable. Now, with the Miramichi mill going down and the Bathurst mill shut down, they are almost shutting down the whole north shore of New Brunswick. If you look at the map, there is not going to be much left in the northern part of the province. We have a few other industries in the region, besides the mill. We have a power utility in Dalhousie, we have another thermal plant in Belledune and we have a chemical plant also in Dalhousie. The main thing is that this major employer, the paper mill, kept pretty well the whole region together and people spent their money in the region too.

We did not expect that AbitibiBowater would announce the closure. And for these people to make the announcement in November, just before Christmas, says what kind of people they really are. I have worked there since 1975 and I am now on long-term disability. I used to be the president of Local 146 of CEP. There are five locals involved and Local 146 is the biggest local at the mill.

Right now there are only 77 workers at the mill, I think, who qualify for pensions. There are around 200 that are between the ages of 50 and 54 with more than 30 years of service at the mill who might not see a pension if the negotiating is not done. The unions are working hard to try to negotiate a pension for these workers. When you look at it, the guys in this age bracket might not be able to retire until they are 65 and most of these guys are in their fifties with 30 years service. Where are they going to go? What are you going to train them for and by the time they are all trained for something, who is going to hire them?

TML: One feature of the struggle is that the whole local population is mobilized.

SP: We started up a committee three weeks ago and we have been bringing the population onside and all the people are with us. We had a major rally on January 6 with over 1,000 people. That is a big chunk of the region.

TML: What are your main demands?

SP: Our coalition has five demands on the table and we presented a letter to the Minister of Natural Resources with our demands.

They want to shut down mills to drive the prices of newsprint up. They are showing that they have no social conscience
We are demanding the announcement of a 45-week moratorium on the Dalhousie mill closure, during which the community will help the government look for a buyer for the mill. The second demand is that the Employment Insurance program pay EI allocations to the workers for the duration of the moratorium. The third one is that it's possible for the workers to cash their severance pay at the end of the moratorium period if a buyer has not been found. The fourth is that no equipment is allowed to leave the Dalhousie mill and that includes the paper machines. These are going to stay there, I can assure you. Finally, the heating and the maintenance of the Dalhousie mill must be maintained to prevent damage to the equipment and the building.

This mill in the AbitibiBowater group is number one in efficiency, number one in quality and second in productivity. What they want to do is to shut down mills to drive the prices of newsprint up. By doing what they are doing, they are showing that they have no social conscience. Is this the way to treat people who worked all their lives for this company, who made them number one in efficiency and in quality? Companies like this have made billions of dollars in this area. Is this the way to treat people?

It is a very productive mill and it is the number one source of income for the people. We would like very much to know what their logic is in shutting us down. They are raising the usual problems like the high dollar and the cost of electricity and so on, but do you shut down your number one mill in efficiency and quality without justification and turn the lives of these workers upside down?

Since we started this Committee, it is just unbelievable how the whole region is behind us. We are going to do whatever it takes to find a buyer and make sure we keep this mill open and making paper. We are in contact with the workers in Miramichi and Bathurst and we invite them to our actions.

TML: You have held rallies and demonstrations and you recently held a mass rally where the Minister of Natural Resources was present.

SP: Yes, that was on Thursday, January 10th and there were about 700 people in the hall. In the presence of the Minister, we passed two resolutions unanimously. One was that the mill has to be sold by AbitibiBowater without any conditions attached to it. AbitibiBowater has said that it does not want to sell the mill to a competitor that will be making newsprint, but we do not accept that. Our second resolution was that the timber license must remain attached to the newsprint mill. We want the facility to reopen and we want it to be making paper.





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