Letter to the editor--Abitibi mill worker Fort Frances doubts union direction

August 27, 2010

By: The Working Forest

I am a member of one of the trades unions at the Fort Frances mill who is now afraid that the future of the  Fort Frances AbitibiBowater mill is in serious jeopardy because of the actions and poor advice of our union leadership.

 I can’t risk charges and retaliation by putting my name here, but I thought people should know about this real danger we now face.  I have attached a recent letter from the mill GM that was just put out earlier this week which clearly shows the Fort mill has quietly slipped to the bottom of the Canadian group.

 The letter is pretty clear and paints a quite different picture of where the mill sits right now that the one I was told of .. What bothers me so much and makes me send this note is I see in the news that Abitibi loses hundreds of millions every quarter, but we are still being told by our union reps that the Fort Frances mill is at the top and doing great and that me and my fellow members are going to get a better deal than every other Canadian Abitibi mill and their 5000 workers.

   I was really starting to believe this might be possible because I thought of course we were one of the top mills around. I was shocked to see the GM put it in print and now find out today that the company is looking at #5 possibly going down 50% of the time starting in October.  I fear this is only the beginning of the end for this mill because we all know that if #5 does go down this mill is not sustainable.  If we are being told mistruths and Fort being of the top Abitibi mills and us deserving a better deal than everyone else, I am now fearful our leadership is either withholding facts or just doesn’t know them.

  We are being told that our tiny group at the worst mill in a bankrupt company is going to buck the company trend, have the best cost structure and still live to brag about it.

   I am starting to believe we are all playing a dangerous game of chicken that is pointing a big read target on Fort Frances.  I know final decisions are being made about what mills should close an which ones will be coming out of CCAA and I am scared that the Fort may silently become one more closure stat sooner than we think 

I have a trades ticket and am probably one of the luck ones if Abitibi decides Fort Frances will close, but I love Fort Frances not Fort McMurry and I definitely don’t want to see the devastation of a mill closure on the people of this town. 

Everything has been buried, but I think time is running out and this town has a right to know what dangerous game I is going on behind the scenes.

Concerned worker AbitibiBowater Fort Frances

(The Mill manager’s letter is clear, but I wanted to add some of my thoughts and some context.  I must remain anonymous as I fear retaliation by members of an angry union executive who will definitely target me for speaking publicly and for releasing this company letter)


Attached letter August 23 2010 from Fort Frances general manager Derrick Lindgren to union Representatives Brian Short and Brian Murdoch…excerpts

”The mill finished the 2009 year as the worst safety performer of all AbitibiBowaters’s mills…Fort Frances productivity also needs major improvement  showing one of the lowest OEE in the Corporation. ..We will also continue to work towards trying to improve the efficiency of the Fort Frances mill and attempt to achieve cost reductions which is obviously critical to all of us in or around the Fort Frances community.”


Jon Ballard said on Sun 29th Aug, 2010 at 21:04:

Poor management has put the Fort Frances mill where it is today. The company would like us to believe that by taking wages from the workers, stealing from employee pensions and forcing employees to pay for their own weekly indemnity, that the mill will all of a sudden turn around and be viable. Abitibi management is using #5 machine like a proverbial gun to the head of the union workers. How much can the upper executives at Abitibibowater expect to gain when they come out of CCAA? I have heard of incredible bonuses to the tune of 5-6 million dollars each. Kind of reminds one of what happened in the United States after the government bailout of the financial institutions. At least the US government stepped in, in that case. You can't risk charges and retaliation by putting your name in here, or is it because you are a coward? I personally don't believe that your letter was written by a union employee.

Greg Holm said on Mon 30th Aug, 2010 at 13:56:

As a life long resident of Thunder Bay, I have been front and center to watch the steep decline of the forest industry in NW Ontario. I come from an Abitibi family - my grandfather and father both spent most of their long work careers in Abitibi management. I worked at the Fort William mill as a student on & off for about 8 years. For the past 10 years, I have managed a service branch for a large multinational company that has been a major supplier to the forest industry, and for many years, forestry was the backbone of our Thunder Bay operation. It has been painful to lose so many key customers such as Abitibi Kenora, Bowater Ignace, Kenora Forest Products, Cascades Thunder Bay, Abitibi Fort William, Smurfit Thunder Bay, Norampac Red Rock, Marathon Pulp, etc. as well as closure of departments in the Bowater Thunder Bay and Domtar Dryden operations. It is also painful to see most of Buchanan FP shut down and Terrace Bay Pulp struggling to reopen. Naturally my concerns relate to the valuable business that has been lost, but I am far more concerned about the horrific impact on the people & communities of this region. Many people more learned than I have voiced opinions about the causes of this terrible trend in our economic base: high cost of power, high Canadian dollar, high cost of fiber, high transportation costs, high cost of labour, productivity, lack of government support, etc. People can continue to debate which of these causes are most valid and what changes might help to turn this trend around. I do know that history tells us employee concessions may help a mill in the short term, but in the long run are not typically enough to save a mill from closing. I do know that when Abitibi asked for concessions in Kenora, the union rightly or wrongly refused to comply and in the end, Abitibi decided to close and dismantle the mill. I do not believe that employee concessions would have saved this mill from the wrecker's ball, but given present market conditions would have simply delayed the inevitable. Concessions at Marathon Pulp were equally unsuccessful in the long term. I do believe that management, unions and government need to continue to work together to help save as many jobs as we can. If the employees in the Fort Frances mill think that they are immune from the fire storm that is attacking the paper industry, I am afraid that they will be sadly disappointed. I believe that Mr Lindgren's comments are valid. This mill does possess some excellent advantages but if key issues are not addressed, this mill will be in jeopardy of closing. In this global market place, I think that there are very few operations in North America that can rest on their laurels. Cost reduction and maximizing production have to stay on the agenda of every mill that intends to survive the hurricane.

Fighting Machinist said on Mon 30th Aug, 2010 at 22:45:

I read all these websites and blog sites that contain updates and opionions of the current situation regarding Abitibi but until now have never felt the need to comment, until now. So here it goes. In December of 2006 all mill locals reatfied a memorandum of agreement that is now referred to as the "Biomass Agreement". This agreement the company said had to be in place for the long term viability of the mill here in Fort Frances. After months of negotations the deal was done and the company got what they wanted, long term lobour peace as well as the local unions would accept the ACI Eastern Canada Pattern during the 2009 negotiations; this however did not include any pension changes. As clearly stated in the Biomass Agreement the unions reserve the right to enter into discussions regarding pension. As we all know this was not the case with the IAM or the IBEW. Admittedly the company is in dire straits but I for one am not going to bend over anymore. If this company feels that they can threaten me with the threat of shutting the door they are sorely mistaken. I have bought into there lies before and I have had enough! As far as the idea that the local union leadership is steering us down a dangerous path, all I will say on that is that elections are held on a regular basis and if you feel you can do a better job by all means STEP UP, quit whining about the problem and do something about it. These men have a thankless job and work hard for all of us, even the ungrateful ones like you. Kudos goes out to Jon for his well written respose, he clearly gets it. Here is a guy with not alot of time in the mill who has it figured out. Another true Fighting Machinist!

Morg said on Tue 31st Aug, 2010 at 22:51:

I normally would never feel the need to respond to anything on line like the original letter. But the half truths and fear mongering annoy me so much that i can not resist. Let us take a look at at the first paragraph shall we.(I've tried to correct the spelling to make it easier to read) "The letter(referring to Mr. Lindgren's ever so timely letter) is pretty clear and paints a quite different picture of where the mill sits right now than the one I was told of .. What bothers me so much and makes me send this note is I see in the news that Abitibi loses hundreds of millions every quarter, but we are still being told by our union reps that the Fort Frances mill is at the top and doing great and that me and my fellow members are going to get a better deal than every other Canadian Abitibi mill and their 5000 workers." If you indeed even work in the Fort Frances mill as you claim , I am sure you have access to the July numbers. Both the Paper and Kraft mill made money. A lot of money. Enough that I think a rational man would go "Wow, here is a company that, in your words, "loses hundreds of millions every quarter" would want to keep a mill that makes money running. Further more the "better deal" you refer to was the one forced upon the unions by the company. Maybe you forget how many times they threatened to shut down our mill if we didn't first open our collective agreement and then sign the "Biomass Agreement". They said this was to "Ensure labour peace through to the 2014 Bargaining Session" Yet here we are, 2010, with yet another gun to our head. In my 23 years in the mill I have never seen any union employee attempt to renegotiate a better deal in the middle of a contract. Even the employees in dire financial situations. If our mill is this terrible, unsafe, money losing, high cost boil on the behind of this great company, well then my 'friend' there is precious little any of us can do about it. If every person in the ENTIRE company worked for free, the fact of the matter is some mills will close. If we are as bad off as Mr. Lindgren implies then I am afraid it's not if but when the doors close and the 100's of millions of dollars in environmental clean up can begin; the lagoon, the AbiBow landfill etc. An let's not forget our friends at Boise. With out their cheap pulp supply they will no doubt face higher costs. I wonder if they will get a gun to their heads at that time....but I digress. In closing I would like the original poster to think back to when you took your oath into your union. Was it just a bunch of words you said to get a good secure job in the trades? Or did you truly believe in trade unionism when you pledged you sacred word of honor? I think after reading your letter there is little doubt in anyone's mind the answer to that question.

Anonymous said on Tue 14th Sep, 2010 at 12:30:

Food for thought: If Abitibi-bowater shut down the Fort Frances Mill... where would Fairfax (1 of the largest secured creditors) find a new favourably accessible kraft source for their International Falls Mill?

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