PORTLAND, Maine — FairPoint Communications and two unions representing about 2,000 workers exchanged sharp words Tuesday over talks to renew a contract set to expire Aug. 2. The unions on Tuesday scheduled votes to authorize a strike if unable to reach terms with the company.
“That gives us more leverage in bargaining with that vote behind us,” said Peter McLaughlin, chairman of a regional council of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “It is always overwhelmingly approved so we do have that bargaining chip and I don’t expect anything else from this weekend’s vote.”
The vote would allow union leaders to authorize a strike if they cannot negotiate a deal the union seeks on the use of outside contractors.
“Though we hope a strike is unnecessary, this vote is the first step toward a work stoppage, should the company continue to put profits over quality work from quality employees,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said in a telephone interview that the main disagreement stems from how much latitude FairPoint will have in hiring outside contractors.
A company representative said much of a union statement issued Tuesday “is shocking and simply not true.”
“FairPoint, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2011, seeks concessions to bring the contracts into the mainstream,” wrote FairPoint spokeswoman Angelynne Amores Beaudry, noting that the company pays all health care premiums and provisions in the current agreement allow for “unlimited paid sick days.”
Beaudry said the new proposal would freeze its existing defined benefit plan contributions for union workers and includes a benefits package that is “substantially similar” to what the rest of the company’s workers have, including medical coverage, life insurance, disability, a 401K retirement plan and other benefits.
She said the company’s stance on hiring contract workers addresses a need for flexibility in hiring experts and outside vendors “as technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace.”
“Our proposals address the need for flexibility when it comes to meeting the communication requirements of our current and future customers,” she wrote.
McLaughlin said the issue of hiring outside contractors is the primary impasse for the IBEW and Communications Workers of America units representing FairPoint workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
“The rest of the stuff is all fluff if you don’t have work,” McLaughlin said in a phone interview Tuesday.
The current contract requires consultation with the union for hiring outside workers, a process that was the subject of a long legal battle that the union won in a 2013 federal appeals court ruling finding the company wrongfully transferred union jobs to contractors in Canada and New York in 2009 and 2010.
He said contractors can’t be relied upon to provide the same quality of service as full-time employees and that corporate officials have not provided the union with specific details on how much that proposal stands to save.
Since April, McLaughlin said the company and union have remained far apart, primarily on the issue of using contract workers, but he expects weeks leading up to Aug. 2 to yield productive talks and said the strike authorization vote is a “routine measure.”
Beaudry agreed, saying the union would not strike before the contract expires Aug. 2 and that if there is a strike that the company would continue service.
McLaughlin said that though the company and union remain far apart, everyone has been at the negotiating table throughout the process.
“We know the issues that we have to tackle and we’re working toward a resolution,” he said.
Beaudry criticized the union’s participation up to this point, saying the company made 65 proposals to the union when negotiations began April 25 and so far has received 11 counterproposals, “none of which would save FairPoint any money,” she wrote.
“If the Unions are not prepared to tackle the critical issues at stake in these negotiations, and simply seek to maintain the unacceptable status quo, it is time for them to at least be honest about it,” Beaudry wrote. “FairPoint will not change its positions based on empty slogans. If the unions really want successor contracts, they will come to the table with real proposals that put customers first and position FairPoint to compete and succeed.”
The first strike authorization vote is scheduled for Friday evening in Vermont. Union members in northern Maine are scheduled to vote Saturday in Bangor and members in southern Maine and New Hampshire have votes scheduled Sunday, according to a notice from the two unions that have organized through the group called Fairness at FairPoint.
McLaughlin told the Bangor Daily News in April that he thinks FairPoint’s leaders may be gearing up to sell the company after negotiating a new contract with its workers and working to secure a new source of state funds to support its land-line service in rural areas.