FairPoint Declares Impasse; Unions Disagree

Portland, Maine — The telephone service provider for Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont declared an impasse after four months of labor negotiations, while more than 1,700 workers for the company were advised by union officials Thursday to be on “standby” for a possible strike or lockout.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Communication Workers of America accused FairPoint Communications of violating federal law and asked the National Labor Relations Board to reinstate the contract that expired on Aug. 2.

Peter McLaughlin, chairman of the unions’ bargaining committee, said contract negotiations that began in April have been a “one-way street” with cost-savings proposals by the union but no movement by FairPoint.

The company said it must reduce labor costs and that it’s willing to listen to further proposals by the unions.

“FairPoint has proved beyond any doubt that they don’t care about anything — employees or customers. It’s all about corporate greed,” said Mike Spillane, business manager of IBEW Local 2326 in Vermont.

Effective Thursday morning, FairPoint imposed its final offer, which it says is permitted under federal law. The plan freezes the current pension plan and eliminates retiree health care benefits.

The unions fumed over the company’s decision, declaring that there was no impasse and that the company was refusing to negotiate in good faith. Workers were told be on “standby” for a strike or lockout as union leaders assessed the company’s 100-page plan, said Jen Nappi, IBEW assistant business manager in Augusta.

North Carolina-based FairPoint has contended its old contract, which retained benefits that workers had enjoyed under Verizon, was out of sync with industry norms.

FairPoint declared an impasse after unions offered a new proposal Wednesday. Labor leaders were notified of the company’s decision after negotiations broke up Wednesday evening.

By Thursday morning, word reached the workforce, leaving workers in a panic, Spillane said.

The company plan that went into effect keeps wages unchanged, but it addresses some of FairPoint’s key concerns: pension liability and health care costs.

Under the new plan, the company is freezing the existing defined benefit pension plan, while preserving employees’ accrued benefits that’ll be rolled over into a new plan. The company also is requiring current employees to share some health care costs for the first time, and eliminating retiree health care benefits for current employees.

The proposal also allows the company to outsource jobs, one of the unions’ biggest concerns during the negotiations. But the company contends contractors cannot be hired if it causes layoffs, said company spokeswoman Angelynne Amores Beaudry.

The two unions said the company hadn’t put forth a counter offer to any union proposal in recent weeks.

“The company has refused to bargain with us, and their negotiators have even attempted to intimidate and bully us throughout the process,” said Glenn Brackett from IBEW Local 2320 in Manchester, New Hampshire.

FairPoint grew six-fold overnight when it bought Verizon’s landline holdings in northern New England for $2.3 billion in 2007. The company lost customers as it struggled because of operational and integration problems, and the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy about 18 months later.

FairPoint has continued to struggle since emerging from bankruptcy in 2011. The company has yet to reverse net losses posted for every year of operation since the Verizon purchase.

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