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State of the Unions: For Twin State Workers, Good News and Reasons for Concern

  • Josh Allen, a service technician at FairPoint Communications, on a job in Bradford, Vt., on Aug. 29, 2014. Allen is a member of the local 2326 IBEW union. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Josh Allen, a service technician at FairPoint Communications, on a job in Bradford, Vt., on Aug. 29, 2014. Allen is a member of the local 2326 IBEW union.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Earl Sweet, President of Local 560 of the Service Employees International Union, in his office at Dartmouth Hall on the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, N.H., on August 27, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Earl Sweet, President of Local 560 of the Service Employees International Union, in his office at Dartmouth Hall on the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, N.H., on August 27, 2014.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ron Barbour, a custodian at Dartmouth College, buffs the halls of Dartmouth Hall on the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, N.H., on August 27, 2014. Barbour and all Dartmouth custodians are members of the Local 560 Service Employees International Union. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Ron Barbour, a custodian at Dartmouth College, buffs the halls of Dartmouth Hall on the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, N.H., on August 27, 2014. Barbour and all Dartmouth custodians are members of the Local 560 Service Employees International Union.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Custodian Daniel Faulkner begins each day by filling his spray bottles and wash buckets with the proper cleaners in the basement of Thornton Hall, the building he is reponsible for cleaning on the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, N.H., on August 27, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Custodian Daniel Faulkner begins each day by filling his spray bottles and wash buckets with the proper cleaners in the basement of Thornton Hall, the building he is reponsible for cleaning on the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, N.H., on August 27, 2014.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Josh Allen, a  service technician at FairPoint Communications, works on a house in Bradford, Vt., on Aug. 29, 2014. Allen is a member of the local 2326 IBEW union. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Josh Allen, a service technician at FairPoint Communications, works on a house in Bradford, Vt., on Aug. 29, 2014. Allen is a member of the local 2326 IBEW union.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Josh Allen, a service technician at FairPoint Communications, on a job in Bradford, Vt., on Aug. 29, 2014. Allen is a member of the local 2326 IBEW union. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Earl Sweet, President of Local 560 of the Service Employees International Union, in his office at Dartmouth Hall on the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, N.H., on August 27, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Ron Barbour, a custodian at Dartmouth College, buffs the halls of Dartmouth Hall on the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, N.H., on August 27, 2014. Barbour and all Dartmouth custodians are members of the Local 560 Service Employees International Union. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Custodian Daniel Faulkner begins each day by filling his spray bottles and wash buckets with the proper cleaners in the basement of Thornton Hall, the building he is reponsible for cleaning on the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, N.H., on August 27, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Josh Allen, a  service technician at FairPoint Communications, works on a house in Bradford, Vt., on Aug. 29, 2014. Allen is a member of the local 2326 IBEW union. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Josh Allen grew up in Bradford, Vt., and went to work for Bell Atlantic, the regional telephone company, as an installation and repair technician a few months after graduating from Oxbow High School in 1998. The reason was as clear as the old-fashioned ring of the telephone: Allen could have gone to work for his father’s fire alarm and home security installation business, but Ma Bell offered something the family business could not, including good benefits and a long-term plan for a secure retirement.

Since then Bell Atlantic turned into Verizon, which later sold its land line business to FairPoint Communications. But the corporate gyrations didn’t much affect Allen’s daily job of climbing polls, splicing wires and responding with emergency crews in Maine and New Hampshire when storms knocked out phone lines.

Over the past 16 years, even during the revolution in telecommunications, working for the phone company has been a reliable job. Allen has enjoyed a rewarding career that has provided the financial seedbed for him to marry and raise four children — the most recent, a girl, is 10 weeks old — and helped secure a solid place for his family in America’s shrinking middle class.

That place now appears less secure.

Last week, following months of bargaining, FairPoint ended contract talks with two unions representing about 2,000 workers in Northern New England, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, of which Allen is a member, and would unilaterally impose a new contract that the unions have repeatedly rejected.

FairPoint, citing the need to make changes to employee benefits in order to remain competitive, plans to freeze the existing defined-benefit pension plan, cut financial support for health insurance, and end medical benefits in retirement for current employees, among other changes.

“When I got hired right out of high school, I looked at (working for the phone company) as a career I could retire from after 30 years,” Allen said via the telephone during a break from work in Fairlee on Thursday. “Now I can’t look at it that way any longer.”

Benefit Changes

The state of the blue-collar worker in Vermont and New Hampshire — the wage earner who long has identified him- and herself with the middle class — is, from their perspective, one of both gains and losses.

The gains have come mostly on the western side of the Connecticut River, where a solidly Democratic Legislature and governor in Montpelier have acted to shore up the shaky foundations of workers left in the widening financial gap between low-wage and high-income households. It’s been more of a mixed bag on the eastern side of the Connecticut River, where organized labor was again able to beat back a Republican-led attempt to push a right-to-work bill through the Senate, but couldn’t persuade enough legislators to back a minimum wage law, despite support from Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

For now, FairPoint workers in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine are still on the job. Mike Spillane, business manager with IBEW Local 2326 in Colchester, Vt., said the union is seeking a court order to block FairPoint’s action.

According to Spillane, about 2,000 of the affected workers are IBEW members, including about 20 who are based, along with Allen, at a site on Currier Street in White River Junction. Spillane said it would “probably be after the (Labor Day) holiday in how we are going to move forward.”

The benefit changes that North Carolina-based FairPoint seeks to impose on union workers — especially freezing the defined-benefit pension plan and channeling contributions into an existing 401(k) plan, which shifts more of the financial burden and risk to employees — have been sweeping workforces of all classes for several decades to the point where now about 70 percent of all wage and salary private-sector employees now participate, according to the Employee Research Benefit Institute.

Dartmouth College, for example, in 1998 revised its pension plan for existing staff and non-union employees to offer them a one-time option of sticking with a traditional defined-benefit plan or enrolling in a defined-contribution plan, while offering only the latter option to new employees. And since 2006, all union employees at Dartmouth are enrolled in the defined-contribution plan only.

Practically speaking, Allen said, it means money out of his paycheck that once went for living expenses would be, under FairPoint’s new contract, funneled instead toward saving for retirement to make up for the freeze of the pension plan.

Loss of Union Jobs

Workers who are covered by labor union contracts represent a small minority of employees today.

Only 13.2 percent of wage and salary workers in Vermont — 38,000 employees — were covered by union contracts last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, up from 13.1 percent, in 2012.

In New Hampshire, 10.7 percent of wage and salary workers, or 67,000 employees, were covered by a union contract, down from 12 percent in 2012. That represented a loss of some 7,000 union jobs in the Twin States, according to the government.

Perhaps surprisingly, despite New Hampshire’s pro-business image and Vermont’s reputation for progressive policies, the figures for both states approach the national average: 11.8 percent of workers in the U.S. were covered by union contracts in 2013, compared with 11.9 percent in 2012.

For labor unions in New Hampshire, the biggest challenge remains blocking the state from adopting “right-to-work” legislation that would exempt workers from being required to join a union and union members from the requirement to pay union dues, according to labor advocates. Proponents of the legislation, advocated by the conservative lobbying organization Americans for Prosperity, say it would lead to thousands of new jobs in the state.

The proposed law, which periodically comes up for vote in Concord, was most recently defeated early last year in the Senate. Earlier, the proposed law passed both the House and Senate, but then-Gov. John Lynch vetoed it and the veto was subsequently upheld by legislators.

“We’ve been very fortunate in pushing back,” said Earl Sweet, president of Service Employees International Union Local 560, which represents about 500 employees at Dartmouth College who work in a variety of jobs, including facilities operations, dining hall, central store and at the Hanover Inn.

The problem with such a law, as the 28-year Hanover union leader sees it, is that “people could come into a union and not pay union dues but enjoy the benefits.”

A New Union

If the defeat of the so-called right-to-work bill was a victory for union workers, defeat earlier this year of a bill to raise the minimum wage in New Hampshire from $7.25 to $8.25 an hour by 2015 could be counted as a loss among both union and non-union workers. That stands in stark contrast to the direction in Vermont, where lawmakers approved, and Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law, a bill to raise the minimum wage from the current $8.73 to $10.50 per hour in 2018.

“In Vermont, we have had some success to celebrate this Labor Day and to look forward to,” said James Haslam, executive director of the Vermont Workers Center in Burlington, a human rights organization that works closely with labor unions. In addition to the minimum wage law, Haslam points to the formation of a union for the first time among home care workers and to a new law giving early home-based child-care workers — called “early educators” — the right to form their own union.

“These are two professions that are growing tons,” Haslam said. And “they pay poverty wages and by and large are done by women.”

The home care industry has been plagued by low wages — workers paid with state funds had been exempt from minimum wage — along with high turnover of employees, who often labor under strenuous working conditions.

The newly formed Vermont Healthcare United union encompasses about 7,000 workers around the state who provide government-funded assistance to elderly and disabled clients. It affiliated with the behemoth American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees umbrella union and became Vermont second-largest union.

In May, the new union struck its first deal with the Shumlin administration, inking a contract that provides home care workers with a minimum wage of $8.80 per hour and a 2.5 percent raise for those currently earning that amount.

Respite home care providers — those who accept clients in their home temporarily while their regular caretakers are away — would see their earnings climb to $150 per day from $116 per day, a nearly 30 percent increase, under the new contract.

Kelly Willard, who provides respite care at her home Ludlow, Vt., in addition to caring for outside clients, welcomes not only the “secure” minimum wage guaranteed by the new law but also the backup now available from the union to handle workplace grievances. She said a complaint lodged against her a couple of years ago, which she said was investigated by the state and found to be groundless, caused her to be out of work for six months.

“It was everybody fend for themselves,” she said, if there was an issue to resolve with the client and contracting agency.

Now, Willard said, there is strength for home care workers in being organized.

“That’s why I joined.”

The home care providers in Vermont may soon be joined by home-based child-care workers. Like workers who provide care in their homes for the elderly and disabled, home-based child-care workers who receive state payments to accept children from low-income families have been exempt from the minimum wage law. In June, Shumlin signed into law a bill that would allow the workers to bargain collectively with the state.

Amy Shollenberger, a Montpelier lobbyist who has worked with the organizing campaign, said efforts are now underway to collect authorization cards from Vermont’s estimated 1,200 to 1,400 home-based independent child-care providers in support of Vermont Early Educators United, which is linked with the American Federation of Teachers.

Signed cards must be collected from at least 30 percent of the eligible providers and are then handed to the Vermont Labor Relations Board, which must sign off on the effort before union representatives can be elected.

The process can take months — followed by more months of bargaining over a contract with the state.

The nascent home care unions in Vermont would have nowhere near the clout and benefits provided by legacy private sector unions, even those wrestling with diminished expectations for its members.

Allen, the FairPoint installation and repair technician from Bradford, is even asking himself if he might have been better off working with his father.

“I’m looking back and wondering, if I stayed there for 16 years, would I be further ahead?” he asked.

“I’m more than halfway through my 30-year career. Obviously with four children this (involves a lot of money). Now I need to adjust my finances so I can survive when I do retire.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.