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Despite History of Strikes, FairPoint Unions Still Undecided On Walkout

Steve Zind
Signs showing past labor actions cover the wall of IBEW spokesman Mike Spillane's office.

Two union contracts between FairPoint Communications and approximately 2,000 workers in Northern New England expired last Saturday. 

For the moment, workers are staying on the job under the terms of the old contract.  The next meeting between FairPoint and union negotiators will take place on Wednesday, August 13.

Mike Spillane, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Vermont, says he’s been hearing from members.

“Most of them wanted to go out on strike,” he says. “They were amped up for it, they knew it was coming.  I think a lot of them are curious as to, based on where we are today, why didn’t we go out?”

"Most of them wanted to go out on strike. They were amped up for it, they knew it was coming. I think a lot of them are curious as to, based on where we are today, why didn't we go out?" - Mike Spillane, IBEW spokesman

Spillane says no strike decision has been made by the IBEW or by the Communications Workers of America. Both unions have been in talks with FairPoint since April.

Spillane says as a union member for 27 years, he’s participated in past strikes. One lasted for nearly four months.  He says that’s a long time to live off credit and savings.

Spillane says union leaders want to be sure a strike will succeed before calling one.

“I know what it’s like to be paying your Visa with your MasterCard,” he says. “I don’t want to put the undue stress on [union members] unless we have to. It may come to that. It may come to that very quick.”

The framed posters on the wall at the offices of the IBEW in Colchester read like a history of past contract impasses:  “On strike against New England Telephone”, “On Strike Against NYNEX”, “On strike against Verizon”. 

Spillane won’t say how likely a strike is at this point. But he says after several months of negotiations between FairPoint and the two unions that represent workers in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire, there’s been very little progress.

Both sides say the other has been inflexible, and both seem dug in. 

In a conference call this week, FairPoint CEO Paul Sunu said the company’s core contract goals continue to be: “Freezing the defined benefit pension plan, discontinuing post-retirement health care benefits for active employees, moving bargaining unit employees to the contributory benefit plan available to other employees, and making changes to the subcontracting provisions.”

The union is not prepared to offer concession in most of these areas.  Mike Spillane rejects the idea of moving workers from a defined benefit pension program to today’s more common employee managed 401K. 

And he doesn’t accept allowing FairPoint to use more non-union subcontractors. 

On health care coverage, Spillane says the union has made a proposal that would save FairPoint $7 million annually without reducing union members’ coverage or significantly increasing their premiums. Currently, the company pays 100 percent of employees’ health insurance costs.

The company says these demands are out of step with other union contracts. Spillane is also aware that some members of the public are critical of the union’s position.

“There are a lot of people out there saying ‘you shouldn’t have this because I don’t have it’. That’s a cop- out.  If you don’t have something good, then I will stand with you. But why do you want to take away from those who have better,” says Spillane.

FairPoint is losing money on its mainstay landline business as it tries to reinvent itself as a telecommunications company, and the losses continue to mount. 

This week the company reported second  quarter losses of more than $22 million dollars.  Spillane acknowledges that the company’s financial distress raises questions about whether the union should offer more concessions.

Obviously we want our company to make money so we can have a piece of it and get good jobs. But, I think that the company is going to do well in the new markets that are out there,” he says. 

Spillane believes FairPoint’s problems have more to do with the way the company is managed that the benefits its union workers receive.

FairPoint declined to comment. In the past, the company has stressed that annual wages and benefits add up to approximately $115,000 per employee, a figure it says is out of sync with industry standards.

The company says it is prepared should a strike occur.

This story was updated on Friday morning after it was announced that FairPoint and union representatives will meet next week

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