Unionized workers at Cloquet's Sappi Fine Paper will vote Friday on a proposed contract -- a week after authorizing a strike if a pact isn't reached with the company, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

About 400 members of the United Steelworkers Local 11-63 voted last week to authorize a strike after Sappi 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.

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.

Sappi has said that it has offered workers a "fair and competitive contract package."

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 have said.

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 have fallen victim to sagging housing starts, low paper sales and soaring fuel prices.

Star Tribune staff writer Dee DePass contributed to this report.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752