FairPoint, union still ‘far apart’ as contract expires

Posted Aug. 04, 2014, at 8:38 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 05, 2014, at 1:12 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The contract between FairPoint Communications and most of its workers expired Saturday as tense negotiations continue over a new deal between the two parties.

With the threat of a strike looming, the company said it has plans in place to maintain service along its lines, which is the backbone for much of the state’s telecommunications infrastructure. The North Carolina-based company services about 450,000 telephone lines in Maine and provides cable television and Internet service.

Both parties said the Saturday deadline passed without an agreement. Company officials said in a statement the two sides remain far apart, echoing statements made earlier this month.

“There has been little or no movement on pensions, retiree medical for active employees or subcontracting, issues which are key to reaching new contracts,” said Angelynne Amores Beaudry in a prepared statement. “The Unions have dug in on almost all of their current benefits under contracts from a bygone era.”

Peter McLaughlin, lead negotiator and chairman of a regional council of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said in an interview that the company has been unresponsive to its proposals.

“There’s no movement on the company side, which is disturbing for us, but we continue to work,” McLaughlin said.

The process for bringing in contract workers remains one of the key sticking points in negotiations. The union now reviews the company’s requests to bring in contractors for specific jobs. McLaughlin said in a previous interview that company officials want to be able to hire contractors with less or no approval from the union.

Beaudry said in an earlier statement that 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.”

That process 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.

McLaughlin said the company came to the bargaining table with demands amounting to more than $700 million, which the union countered with a proposal to save the company $180 million.

“They just scoffed at it and refused a counter-proposal,” McLaughlin said. “That leaves us bargaining with ourselves.”

He said the union remains willing to bargain over any parts of its contract and that he thinks it would be difficult for the company to prove there is an impasse in talks at this point. Proving such a stall in talks would allow the company to put its last, best offer into effect, McLaughlin said.

Until that or a negotiated agreement, union employees will be working under the terms of the expired contract and negotiators have the ability to call a strike, a move union members approved earlier this month.

The company said the contract represents about 1,700 of the company’s 2,550 workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. The two unions, organized as the group Fairness at Fairpoint, indicates on its website that it represents about 2,000 of the company’s employees.

The Communication Workers of America and local chapters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont are involved in the talks with the company.

CORRECTION:

A previous version of this report overstated the number of telephone access lines FairPoint has in Maine.

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