About 400 members of the United Steelworkers voted this week to authorize a strike at Sappi Fine Paper in Cloquet, Minn., after management offered a contract that cut some retiree benefits.

Of the roughly 715 workers at the mill, 408 are represented by the United Steelworkers. The union represents workers from varying industries including paper, nursing, taconite and steel.

Union officials in Minnesota were not available Thursday to comment on Sappi. The Steelworkers' Local 11-63 unit in Cloquet is so small, it does not have an official office, union staffers in Minneapolis said.

In October, members of Local 11-63 picketed the Sappi paper mill after managers offered a contract that would terminate retiree benefits for workers with fewer than 15 years of service. The two sides have been bargaining since May without resolution.

On Wednesday, officials from the Sappi Fine Paper North America headquarters in Boston issued a statement saying they were "disappointed" that their United Steelworkers mill employees in Cloquet "have authorized their leadership to call a strike."

Officials emphasized that "such a vote is not uncommon and does not mean a strike will occur."

In a statement, Rick Dwyer, Sappi's managing director in Cloquet, said the company had offered workers a "fair and competitive contract package."

Sappi officials noted that the union's position comes "at a time of so much industry uncertainty, including bankruptcies, mill closures and layoffs." Officials added that they hoped the union would ratify the new contract.

Aside from its labor dispute, Sappi is pursuing a $170 million project to convert its pulp mill into a plant that makes specialized cellulose. The move is expected to "provide attractive jobs for years to come," company officials said, but declined to say how many jobs.

Sappi's labor unrest comes at a difficult time in the paper and wood industries.

Caterpillar recently announced that it would shut a tree harvesting equipment factory in Owatonna, Minn., and lay off 100 workers in January. The owners of the Verso paper mill in Sartell recently decided not to reopen after a fire destroyed the plant during the Memorial Day weekend.

Georgia-Pacific said last month that it will close a wood-for-automobiles plant in Duluth in an effort to consolidate operations and costs.

Minnesota's annual tree harvest has plummeted about 40 percent in the past six years as plants across the state fell victim to sagging housing starts, low paper sales and soaring fuel prices.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725