In this Feb. 8, 2017, file photo, the Somerset Mill in Skowhegan, which is owned Sappi North America Inc. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Skowhegan millworkers voted Wednesday to ratify a new union contract, averting a strike this week.

The new three-year contract between the United Steelworkers Local 4-9 and Sappi North America was described as the most “lucrative” for workers since 1995 when the mill changed hands, according to the Maine AFL-CIO.

“For many months, the company questioned our solidarity. The members spoke loud and clear,” Patrick Carleton, the union’s president, said Wednesday. “After working in the plant through the pandemic, this contract offer represents the dedication and commitment to keep our company profitable in our markets. It was long overdue.”

In a Thursday morning statement, a spokesperson for Sappi North America said, “We are pleased that Somerset mill employees represented by the United Steelworkers voted to accept our proposal, which contains a number of significant improvements for our employees.”

The union and Sappi had been mired in negotiations since last August when the last contract expired.

In February, 96 percent of the union’s members voted to reject Sappi’s offer and to authorize a strike if a deal couldn’t be reached. The union later served Sappi a 10-day notice of its intent to strike on Monday.

After further negotiations on March 14 and 15, Sappi agreed to not increase out-of-pocket health care costs so long as premiums don’t rise above 14 percent and to give lump sum payments to workers who had retired since the last contract expired, according to the Maine AFL-CIO.

That offer was rejected, but negotiators reached a tentative agreement at 5:30 p.m. Friday and workers ratified it Wednesday.

Under the new contract, workers will get a 3 percent wage boost each year retroactive to Aug. 23, 2021, $1 added to the wage rate upon ratification, another $1 added to the wage rate for additional duties, a $5,000 lump sum paid out to workers who retired after the last contract expired and no increases in out-of-pocket health care costs.

“Though our members had to push back a little, the company ultimately decided to invest not only in their paper machines, but also in their employees by maintaining current healthcare, continuing pension improvements, and offering one of the best wage proposals seen in the Maine paper industry,” said Mike Higgins, a United Steelworkers staff representative.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated what an additional dollar added to millworkers’ wage rate was for.