Hundreds of unionized employees of the shuttered NewPage Port Hawkesbury mill in Cape Breton packed a fire hall on Thursday night to hear the details of a contract ultimatum by the British Columbia firm offering to buy the mill.

"I could tell by the expression on our guys' and girls' faces that this is blowing their mind," said Steve MacDougall, the recording secretary with Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union Local 972.

"This is way more than they thought they were going have to be asked for."

Pacific West Commercial Corp., which is offering to buy the mill, wants to cut the unionized workforce in half.

The company sent mill employees an ultimatum via the internet on Thursday and said if a new collective agreement cannot be reached, it will withdraw its bid to buy the mill.

Hundreds of members of Local 972 got their first look at the contract offer on Thursday night. The collective agreement would last for 10 years — until Dec. 31, 2022 — if it is ratified.

Gerard Samson, who has been a NewPage employee for 30 years, said the workers' pensions were a point of concern.

"You have a carrot dangled in front of you for 30 years and when you get to that carrot, somebody's eating it," he said after the three-hour long meeting.

Mill closed in September

The contract offer said 229 unionized employees will be offered work if the mill is restarted, down from about 600 employees when the mill shut down in September.

"Simply put, things are changing and we need to change with them," said the letter from Pacific West Commercial Corp.

"The reality of the new staffing levels of the mill means that we need to hire employees who will want to run this mill as efficiently and competitively as possible."

The NewPage Port Hawkesbury mill closed after struggling with soaring fuel, electricity costs, a strong Canadian dollar and declining demand.

Pacific West Commercial Corp., which is associated with Stern Partners Inc., said if the mill in Point Tupper is restarted, workers will receive generally the same wages.

There will be a new defined contribution pension plan and profit sharing if the company makes more than $10 million a year.

As the company had previously said, NewPage Port Hawkesbury's newsprint machine will be permanently shut down. The steam plant will be taken over by Nova Scotia Power Inc.

The contract states 80 per cent of each major area of the mill will be staffed by senior employees.

"Within that general rule, the company is given discretion on staffing to ensure the critical matching of jobs to people with the abilities and attitudes needed to ensure ongoing success," said the company.

$12 million over 10 years for severance payments

Pacific West Commercial Corp. is offering $12 million over 10 years to cover severance payments, as well as benefits for retired and disabled former employees.

That money is not expected to go far, considering the current pension plan is underfunded by more than $100 million.

Archie MacLachlan, vice-president of Local 972, said in the workers were disappointed with the details of the contract.

"It seemed like after a boxing match, 12 rounds of getting pounded around, they were dumbfounded," he said.

The province of Nova Scotia has spent $27 million to maintain the facility as negotiations continued to finalize its sale.

Premier Darrell Dexter had no advice for workers as they prepared to discuss the contract agreement earlier on Thursday.

"It's up to them to decide. It's really not very useful for governments to get in the middle of a collective bargaining situation," he told reporters.

"It is a matter that's between the union and the potential employer. Everyone knows what the situation is so we hope they're able to conclude an agreement."

Pacific West Commercial Corp. said if the offer is rejected, the company will pull out of the sale and the NewPage Port Hawkesbury mill's assets will be liquidated.

The unionized workers are set to meet on Saturday at 2 p.m. once the members have had a chance to look over the contract details.