PORTLAND, Maine — Several hundred FairPoint Communications union members fighting for a new contract earned a promise of support Monday from a leader of the nation’s largest organized labor group and Democratic congressional candidates.
FairPoint workers and other union supporters gathered in the city’s Longfellow Square, marching from the annual breakfast of the Southern Maine Labor Council, for the largest public demonstration yet since the start of a contract dispute between the union and the company.
“The goal of the demonstration today is just getting awareness out to the public about why we’re on heightened alert for potentially — maybe — going on strike,” said Jim Feeney, a Bangor-based FairPoint technician and union mobilizer.
Members of the union authorized declaration of a strike in July.
Tefere Gebre, executive vice president with the AFL-CIO, said Monday that the federated union group has offered its financial and legal help to the two unions pursuing a new contract with FairPoint in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. That previous 10-year contract between Verizon and the workers expired Aug. 2.
In addition to lending its resources, Gebre said the AFL-CIO will use its pension fund investments to put pressure on the North Carolina-based publicly traded company to come back to the bargaining table. He said he’s not sure whether the pension funds of AFL-CIO members include investments directly in FairPoint.
“One way or another we’ll have a connection to FairPoint,” Gebre said.
The company last week stepped away from the bargaining table, saying the union was no longer willing to bargain. Declaring an impasse allows the company to put into effect the terms of its last offer to workers, which has provisions they don’t want. Mostly, the union’s oppose the company’s ability to bring in outside contractors under the imposed terms.
The company has said their proposal now in effect prevents them from hiring contractors if that causes a union employee to lose their job. Company spokeswoman Angelynne Amores Beaudry has said the company is seeking greater flexibility in hiring outside workers to be able to adapt more quickly to changing technology.
Union organizers said the company has already started to hire workers in preparation for a strike. Beaudry confirmed last week that the company has painted orange lines around its property at various locations in the state as a precautionary measure in the event of a strike.
“It’s our preparation because they have been very vocal and public about the actions that they want to take,” Beaudry said Friday.
The demonstration Monday, during the Labor Day holiday, raised the volume a little more.
Union negotiators continue to review the terms of that proposal and consult with their attorneys as they have asserted the company broke federal law by putting an end to negotiations.
The possibility of a strike could have implications for service across the company’s network, which is the backbone for much of the state’s telecommunications infrastructure, from Internet to cellphone services, emergency networks and maintenance of the telephone poles that other companies use in much of northern New England.
Peter McLaughlin, a lead negotiator for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2327, said Friday that negotiators for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Communications Workers of America in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont do not have a deadline for making a decision to strike.
The IBEW and CWA unions represent about 800 FairPoint workers in Maine and 2,000 across Northern New England.