Over 1,700 workers strike against FairPoint

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PORTLAND — More than 1,700 FairPoint Communications workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont went on strike Friday, with picket-wielding workers demanding that the company return to the bargaining table.

A company spokeswoman insisted the telecommunications company is willing to listen if the unions provide a proposal that “meaningfully addresses the core issues.”

But the striking workers who staff call centers and maintain the region’s telephone network said they deserved better after helping the company negotiate a rocky transition when FairPoint purchased Verizon’s land-based assets and then sticking with the company through bankruptcy.

“When they bought Verizon, we bailed them out of that fiasco and disaster and we bailed them out of bankruptcy. This is a complete slap in the face,” said Serina DeWolfe, a Communications Workers of America official who joined pickets in Portland.

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The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communication Workers of America announced the strike Thursday night, hours after a failed attempt to re-engage the company in negotiations during a meeting in Boston.

The unions have offered “significant concessions” but the company wasn’t interested, Peter McLaughlin, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2327 in Maine.

“The company is not willing to negotiate on anything, so we felt that we’ve exhausted all of our options and this company has no interest in reaching an agreement. They’ve really backed us into a corner. We have no choice but to strike,” said Jenn Nappi, assistant business manager with Local 2327, who join pickets at midnight in Portland.

FairPoint sought to assure telephone and high-speed Internet customers on Friday that it has “comprehensive contingency” plans in place to ensure that there are no service interruptions.

The company, which contends the old contract was out of sync with industry norms, imposed its final contract offer in late August when it declared an impasse in negotiations dating to April.

The company-imposed contract froze the workers’ pensions, replacing them with 401(k) plans going forward, and requires workers to contribute to health care costs for the first time. Other provisions allow the company to hire contractors and eliminate retiree health care benefits for current workers.

Accusing the company of failing to bargain in good faith, they have asked the National Labor Relations Board to order the company back to the negotiating table.

FairPoint spokeswoman Angelynne Amores Beaudry said the company hasn’t closed the door on negotiations.

“While we have implemented our final proposals, we have always remained willing to negotiate and have committed to evaluate and respond to any counterproposal from the unions that meaningfully addresses the core issues of these negotiations. So far we have not received any such counterproposals,” she said.

North Carolina-based FairPoint, which provides telephone and high-speed Internet service, grew six-fold overnight when it bought Verizon’s land holdings in northern New England for $2.3 billion in 2007. Some accused the company of biting off more than it could chew, and it filed for bankruptcy 18 months later.

FairPoint emerged from bankruptcy in 2011, but has struggled to become profitable. The company has yet to reverse net losses posted for every year of operation since the Verizon purchase.

The unions contend that the company doesn’t want to negotiate because it wants to slash costs to make it attractive to prospective buyers and to provide promised dividends to shareholders.

“The goal is to get them back to the bargaining table. Since April 25, this company has dug in its heels and flat out refused to negotiate in good faith,” DeWolfe said.

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