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Concerned About Strike Risks, FairPoint Union Pursues Other Options

In this file photo from 2014, signs are seen in the office of Mike Spillane of IBEW that describe past labor actions. On this "Vermont Edition," we're talking about the state's labor history and unions today.
Steve Zind
VPR File
Union leadership is concerned FairPoint would react differently than its predecessors in the event of a strike

Contract talks between union employees and FairPoint Communications have been on hold since the company declared an impasse two weeks ago.

Union officials say a strike is possible, but they’re concerned about the risks and the effectiveness of striking. For the moment, they’re exploring other options.  

It could take weeks for the National Labor Relations Board to consider unfair labor practice claims by the union and decide whether FairPoint was justified in declaring an impasse in negotiations. 

In doing so FairPoint announced it would unilaterally reduce benefits for unionized employees.

Waning membership has meant less political power for unions. Court decisions and regulatory changes have increased the risk involved in striking.

Although union members gave leadership the authority to call a strike once their contract expired nearly six weeks ago, no strike seems imminent.

Waning membership has meant less political power for unions and court decisions and regulatory changes have increased the risk involved in striking.

Mike Spillane of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents about 1.800 FairPoint employees in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine says it’s a different era than when past strikes were called. 

He cites the bakers union strike against Hostess as an example.  Hostess closed down and liquidated its assets. A buyout firm reopened the company but 15,000 union employee were out of a job.

“Now Hostess is back on the shelves, but it’s certainly not the union that had labor issues. They’re all gone,” says Spillane.

Spillane says a strike is still an option but since the impasse the union has been concentration on bringing pressure to bear on FairPoint in different ways.

This week the Associated Press reported that the comptroller of New York wrote a letter  to the CEO of a private equity firm that is FairPoint’s largest shareholder asking him to ensure that workers are treated fairly by the company. Spillane says the letter came about through union efforts.   

“We got the right people who know somebody who knows somebody else that brought to our team the ability to get that letter written,” he says.

Spillane says the union has approached members of Vermont’s congressional delegation asking them to contact FairPoint on their behalf.

Sen. Bernie Sanders issued a statement saying, "FairPoint must negotiate a fair contract with its employees and I look forward to working with the CWA and IBEW to make sure that happens."

A spokesman for Rep. Peter Welch said the Congressman has spoken with a FairPoint representative and, "urged the company to come back to the table and reach an agreement".

It’s also contacted AARP in hopes the organization will urge FairPoint to restore health coverage for future retirees, one of the benefits the company has eliminated.

The union is also considering a statehouse rally to mobilize public support.

Spillane says the union is weighing the possibility of a one day walk-out, or a series of day long work stoppages.

“The downside is, is it worth the effort,” he says. “Would the company lock you out on a day?”

FairPoint could lockout union employees or hire non-union replacement workers in the event of a strike.  The union can appeal these actions to the National Labor Relations Board, but the risks and the time involved in that process appear to be something the union hopes to avoid.

FairPoint has consistently maintained that the terms of the old union contract, including 100 percent health coverage, medical benefits for retirees and a defined benefit pension plan, are inconsistent with union benefits elsewhere and are excessively costly.

FairPoint also wants more flexibility to hire non-union contractors.

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