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Union hopes Espanola mill shutdown will be brief

Unifor president asks for regulatory protection to safeguard jobs during corporate mergers
Exterior view of the Domtar paper mill in Espanola, Ontario. (CNW Group/Unifor)

Unionized workers at Domtar’s Espanola pulp and paper mill say they’re “grappling” with this week’s news of a year-long shutdown of the northeastern Ontario operation, 70 kilometres west of Sudbury.

U.S.-based Domtar announced the Espanola pulp and paper mill will be placed in an idled state for a year.

The mill is the largest employer in the town of Espanola, population 5,000.

Workers were notified Sept. 6 that the mill will cease production on Nov.30 and remain in shut-down mode for a year with an intention to restart, said Unifor in a news release. 

Out of the 450 jobs impacted, Unifor said a handful of workers will be required to keep the mill in working order during this period. 

"Losing this many jobs for a year or more will impact the whole community so we are of course hoping the shutdown will end as soon as possible," said Chris Presley, president of Local 74 at the mill. "Right now, we're focused on supporting the workers through this transition."

The mill has two Unifor locals. Local 74 represents 250 members. Local 156 represents 91.

"I think many of us are trying to keep our hopes up and help each other out," said Dean Houle, president of Local 156. "Forestry workers are used to ups and downs, but the longer we're down, the harder it will be to get up and running again."

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Unifor said meetings have been arranged in the coming days to discuss specifics with company officials and members will receive updates through their union representatives.

Domtar and its Paper Excellence Group parent company is undergoing a major reorganization since a Canadian Competition Bureau ruling late last year following a series of acquisitions. The ruling resulted in divestiture of some mill assets in Thunder Bay and Dryden.

But Domtar had already been placed Espanola on the selling block, a dark cloud that's been hanging over the heads of workers and the community for months.

In a company release announcing the mill idling, the Espanola operation was portrayed by Domtar paper and packaging president Steve Henry as a high-cost, money-losing asset. Domtar had announced in 2019 of a major capital mill upgrade but didn't follow through when project costs began to climb due to the aged state of plant, the company said.  

"There were hopes this mill would find a buyer and find a way to continue its legacy as a vital part of the Ontario forestry sector, but with (yesterday's) news, workers are devastated," said Unifor National President Lana Payne in a statement.

"We fully expect workers to be protected in the event of corporate mergers that have occurred recently in the forestry sector and our union believes that jobs should be protected through the regulatory process surrounding such mergers."

As Canada’s largest union in the private sector, Unifor represents 315,000 workers across a broad spectrum of the economy.