FairPoint Communications and its unionized employees in northern New England have returned to the bargaining table. Their current five-year contract agreement expires Aug. 2.

The company is seeking cuts to all manner of benefits, according to union representative Mike Spillane, of IBEW Local 2326.

The chapter represents about 350 workers in Vermont. Another 100 customer service representatives in Vermont are represented by Communication Workers of America. The negotiations collectively cover about 1,800 employees in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Spillane said Thursday that FairPoint's first proposal was stark.

"Right now, FairPoint has basically said they want to reduce every benefit we've gotten over the last 40 years," he said. That includes health care coverage, tuition reimbursements and wages for starting workers -- and freezing pensions.

FairPoint CEO Paul Sunu said in a quarterly conference call this month: "Our core proposals include freezing the defined-benefit pension plan, discontinuing post-retirement health care benefits for active employees, moving bargaining unit employees to the contributory benefit plans available to other employees, making changes to layoff and recall provisions and the elimination of the related costs and changes to various other work rules that will allow us to more effectively serve customers."

He said that what he outlined was just an opening bid. The company "will bargain in good faith and will show flexibility and creativity in working towards acceptable solutions," Sunu said, so long as the unions demonstrate a reciprocal effort.

Spillane said the union is willing to engage in give-and-take on certain aspects of the bargaining agreement.

"Doing away with our pension is probably not one," he said. "They're fighting words. You go after my pension, we're going to fight."

FairPoint Vermont President Beth Fastiggi said in an April interview that the company is looking for cost savings.

Coping with chronic financial strains, FairPoint hopes to restructure to benefits plans "similar to what other businesses have," Fastiggi said

The next bargaining session is slated for Nashua, N.H., in mid-June.