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Malden Mills workers OK strike

LAWRENCE -- Seven hundred workers at Malden Mills Industries could go on strike as early as tomorrow after the mill's largest union voted to reject the company's final contract offer.

Union members voted 231-198 over two days to authorize a strike and reject the three-year contract offer that included pay raises and higher health insurance premiums for employees, the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune reported.

The vote blocked the union from accepting what Malden Mills called its "best and final" offer and authorizes the leadership to strike, said Warren Pepicelli, executive vice president and coordinator for UNITE HERE's New England joint board.

The union said the company agreed to meet with negotiators once more Tuesday to try to reach an agreement.

The textiles company, which moved to Lawrence in 1956, makes Polartec fleece and other fabric used in a wide range of clothing and blankets.

The company employs about 1,000 workers at facilities in Lawrence, Methuen and Hudson, N.H. UNITE HERE Local 311 in Lawrence represents about 700 workers at the mill. Production workers make on average $12.50 an hour.

UNITE, or the Union of Needletrades, Textiles, and Industrial Employees, and HERE, or the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, merged in July.

Malden Mills Industries filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001, then reemerged last year after restructuring. This was to be the first contract negotiated between new ownership, led by General Electric's financing arm GE Commercial Finance, and the union.

Aaron Feuerstein lost control of the mill in bankruptcy. He gained national renown for his decision to keep workers on the payroll after a December 1995 fire destroyed the company's main factory. Insurance covered only three-quarters of the $400 million in rebuilding costs, and the company eventually filed for bankruptcy protection.

Chief Executive Officer Michael Spillane said he hopes a four-day "cooling off" period would lead the union to reconsider by tomorrow.

"I think we're looking to make sure everyone understands the offer on the table," Spillane told the Eagle-Tribune.

The company proposed tripling -- to $18 a week -- employee contributions for individual health insurance membership. Premiums for families would nearly quadruple from $9 to $35. Employee contributions also would increase in the second and third year of the contract.

Pepicelli said workers strongly objected to the proposed health insurance cost increases.

If a walkout happens, it would be the first in the union's history at Malden Mills, a union spokesman said.

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