Quashing bankruptcy rumors at Verso Paper’s Bucksport mill

Verso Paper’s mill in Bucksport. BDN photo by Gabor Degre.

Paper mills churn more than just paper. Apparently, they’re also rumor mills.

Last week, an anonymous message was left on the phone of Anthony Ronzio, the Bangor Daily News’ director of news. The caller, who sounded nervous, claimed Verso Paper was threatening to file for bankruptcy if the unions that represent workers at its Bucksport mill didn’t agree to have employees bear a larger burden of health insurance costs. (Memphis, Tenn.-based Verso also operates the paper mill in Jay, but the workers there are not unionized.)

Clearly, such a claim requires some exploring. Not only would it be news, it’d be illegal. Verso, which employs 1,500 Mainers at its Maine mills, would be breaking the law if it threatened bankruptcy in order to get unions to accept concessions.

Emery Deabay is a boiler operator at the Bucksport mill. He’s also president of the largest union at the mill, United Steelworkers 1188, and vice president of the Eastern Maine Labor Council.

I caught Deabay on his phone last week while he was at the AFL-CIO national convention in Los Angeles. I told him about the anonymous message we received about Verso threatening bankruptcy.

“That’s not even close,” he said. “Basically, like a lot of companies because of the Affordable Care Act, they’re looking at our plans and so they want us to sit down and try to figure out what’s the best mix for the workers at the mill. They haven’t asked for anything. They just want to make sure we get the best coverage for our money, which we do as well.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a story, but there isn’t one,” he told me. “We have a lot of issues, but that’s not one of them.”

Bill Cohen, Verso’s spokesman in Maine, was adamant in his reaction to the rumor.

“You can’t threaten bankruptcy,” he said, breathlessly. “You can’t even do that. That’s absolutely illegal. We aren’t there and we aren’t doing it. There’s no truth to it.”

Cohen said that because of changes brought about by the ACA, also known as Obamacare, the company is looking at its options for health insurance coverage. He didn’t deny it might mean the company may need to ask workers to increase their contribution, but said he wasn’t privy to the discussions going on between the human resources department and the unions.

“There’s been no threat. There’s been discussion,” Cohen said, adding that the company hasn’t asked workers to increase their share of health care costs in two years.

However, neither Cohen nor Deabay were especially surprised that such a rumor is making the rounds. Both admitted rumors are not uncommon at the mill, a natural result of workers’ fears over the health of the company and the overall paper industry.

And who can blame them?

In the past several months, the Bangor Daily News has published articles either online or in the newspaper about Verso’s financial struggles (it’s lost money in five of its last six quarters), it’s facing ejection from the New York Stock Exchange, and the skyrocketing costs of transporting natural gas to its two Maine mills. Add to that residual fear over the paper mills that have closed in recent years and it’s no wonder workers are afraid.

“It’s not hard to get a rumor going in an environment like that,” Deabay said.

I feel for those workers. It’s an uncertain time, and to have such worries hang over your head day in and day out must be taxing. So to all paper mill workers in the state, Maine salutes you.

Whit Richardson

About Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.