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FairPoint Declares Impasse, Implements Reduced Union Benefits

VPR/Steve Zind
FairPoint says it will unilaterally implement pay and benefit provisions for union workers

FairPoint Communications says it will unilaterally implement the terms of its union contract offer. The company has declared an impasse in talks with the unions representing as many as two thousand workers in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. 

Under federal labor law an impasse declaration enables FairPoint to make changes to wages, benefits and employment conditions without union consent.  

A company can declare an impasse if there is no prospect for a negotiated settlement.

FairPoint says it will move current union workers from a defined pension plan to a 401K retirement plan, which it says is the same one management employees are offered.

Also under the new terms, the company will provide union workers with the same medical plan as management. The plan pays 75 percent of an employee’s premium as opposed to the 100 percent premium payment under the union contract that expired a month ago.   

The company will also eliminate retiree medical benefits for current employees.

FairPoint will also institute provisions that allow it greater flexibility in hiring non-union subcontractors.

The new benefits outlined by FairPoint are essentially the same conditions the company  has articulated publicaly since the beginning of contract negotiations in April.

“Since we began negotiating with the unions several months ago we’ve repeatedly shared with them our core issues, which they have rejected,” says FairPoint spokesperson Angelynne Amores Beaudry.

The unions see it differently.

“This is exactly what they gave us in April. They have not moved at all,” says  Mike Spillane with the International Brotherhood of Electrical workers in Vermont. “They’ve totally made a mockery of the bargaining process.”

Spillane says the union has filed an injunction with the federal government to prevent FairPoint from making the changes.

He says the union is still considering its options in the wake of FairPoint’s decision, including the possibility of calling a strike, which workers have authorized.

FairPoint says it remains open to negotiations and would prefer to reach an agreement with the unions.   

Professor Joan Vogel of the Vermont Law School has a background in employment and labor law. 

She says in order for FairPoint’s impasse declaration to hold up, the company will have to show the National Labor Relations Board that it bargained in good faith while the union was inflexible.

“The National Labor Relations Board uses a ‘totality of the circumstances test’.  They look at the bargaining history and look at the nature of the bargaining process,” says Vogel. “ It’s not simply that they disagreed or couldn’t agree, but whether the proposals from the union side were taken seriously.”

Vogel says the ability of employers to declare an impasse in union negotiations and set employment terms unilaterally is a long standing provision of labor law.

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