FairPoint, unions not talking


Unionized FairPoint workers have not yet called a strike and no new negotiation sessions have been publicized, officials on both sides of the contract dispute said Tuesday.

After more than three months of negotiations, FairPoint Communications and two unions representing its workers were unable to reach an agreement before the contract expired at midnight Saturday. Workers are still on the job without a contract.

The unions, with 1,800 workers across Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, are hoping to come back to the bargaining table this week. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America have already authorized a strike and FairPoint could lock out the workers at any time. FairPoint purchased Verizon's northern New England landline operations in 2008.

"Right now we're just regrouping, working behind the scenes, preparing for our next sessions," said Mike Spillane, business manager of IBEW Local 2326 in Colchester. "I hope we get back there (to the table) soon and can break this gridlock and go on with our lives."

The main points of contention remain FairPoint's decision to freeze pensions for current employees, terminate health care benefits of retirees and hire outside contractors to replace unionized workers. FairPoint, which pays sick leave and covers 100 percent of health care costs for unionized employees, says the decisions are cost-saving measures for the company. Since bargaining began in late April, the unions say they have put 65 proposals on the bargaining table.

In July, workers in each state overwhelmingly voted to authorize the strike.

But hours before the deadline Saturday, as workers held a candlelight vigil in each state, the union announced that it would hold off on calling a strike.

"We're far apart. We're still considering options. Nothing has changed so far," FairPoint spokesperson Angelynne Beaudry said. She would not comment on FairPoint's outlook or whether negotiations would continue this week.

"In addition to posting new "no trespassing" signs and spray-painting strike lines on the pavement at many company locations, management went as far as housing strike-breaking replacement workers at the same hotel where bargaining is taking place -- an open and hostile attempt to intimidate union leaders," the unions wrote in a news release.

Both sides acknowledge that they're not nearing a compromise.

In the last few days before the contract expiration, "we made significant proposals that the company just out and out rejected," Spillane said. "The company continued to sit there like a two-year-old would, just saying ‘no, no, no.'"

Spillane said he expects FairPoint to offer a proposal later this week.

"There are 50 reasons we could go to strike -- if the company were to try to put us at an impasse, if they refused to negotiate," he said. "As long as we have an opportunity to go back to the table, we figured we'd rather negotiate this rather than put our workers out on the street."


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