A Consolidated Communications truck works on repairing a landline phone service outage on Center Street in Bangor. Credit: Eesha Pendharkar / BDN

The heads of unions in New England that work for Consolidated Communications, one of the largest broadband internet companies in Maine, said Wednesday that a majority of members have authorized them to call a strike if they cannot reach an agreement on using outside contractors.

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2327, which represents 450 workers in Maine, along with two IBEW unions with 650 workers in New Hampshire and Vermont, voted, along with the representatives of the Communications Workers of America. The three-year contract for the workers expires on Aug. 7.

A strike authorization vote is a necessary precursor to a work stoppage, but does not require the union members to go on strike. That decision could be made later by union leaders. Negotiations with Consolidated Communications are continuing today.

“No one here wants a strike,” Peter McLaughlin, business manager for IBEW 2327, said.

At issue is how outside contractors are being used. McLaughlin said the existing contract allows the use of outside contractors as long as union workers are not laid off. He said the union expected that to mean using those workers on large projects, like one several years ago when there were not enough union workers to lay fiber optic cable to 1,100 cell towers in six months’ time.

“They’re using more contractors than they should and that’s a huge issue for us,” McLaughlin said. He said the company also is transferring work to other parts of the country, and local union workers have to change jobs.

Consolidated Communications said it is negotiating in good faith with the unions and has a history of positive and respectful labor relations.

“As a critical infrastructure provider, we always plan for a variety of contingencies to minimize any potential service disruptions,” Ryan Whitlock, senior vice president of operations, said.

Consolidated Communications’ internet service area covers about 55 percent of Maine’s area. The company does not disclose customer numbers, but said its network passes 687,000 homes and businesses that could potentially connect to it.

The company has plans to greatly expand and upgrade its internet service in rural Maine. It was awarded $31 million in a federal auction to bring  fiber cable to the homes of 11,500 customers and start building it out in early 2022, after the Federal Communications Commission approves the details, and it should be done within six years.