‘We don’t know what to expect’: FairPoint workers in Maine picket during first day of strike

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The parking lot at FairPoint’s call center on Riverside Drive in Portland was still empty at about 10 a.m. Friday.

In the coming weeks and months, who might pull into those and other parking spaces at FairPoint offices around the state is one of the biggest questions ahead for about 800 of the company’s Maine workers who went on strike at midnight Friday.

Throughout the morning, union officials said they did not see replacement workers heading to any of Maine’s FairPoint offices, but the company has said it has plans in place to continue service during the strike and previously lined up temporary employees.

Randall Curtis, a picket captain in Bangor for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said he’s worried about new out-of-state hires crossing the picket line, especially since “this could last a day, a week or a month.”

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“The company has been saying all this time that they have a trained workforce in place. But if you call customer service, you’ll see that is not the case,” Curtis said. “Some don’t even know what company they’re working for. One said, ‘Thanks for calling Fairbanks,’ instead of FairPoint.”

A few workers taking to the picket lines in Bangor and Portland on Friday said they were nervous as the first day of the strike got under way. Others said they saw the strike as the inevitable next step for the negotiations that stalled Aug. 28, when the company declared an impasse.

“We don’t know what to expect,” said Michelle Heald, a Waterville resident whose job was moved to Portland after FairPoint closed its South China call center in July. “We’re trying to figure out our daily budget and make things meet at the other end, you know.”

Don Tremontozzi, head of the local chapter of the Communications Workers of America union, said 20 of its members were slated to lose their job in July with the closure of the South China call center, whose workers joined the union with FairPoint’s Verizon purchase in 2008. Three of those employees took a severance package. Another 17, including Heald, were given the choice to move to either Bangor or Portland.

Krista Jensen, who worked for Verizon in Portland for about 14 years before FairPoint bought that company’s landline business in 2007, said she wasn’t surprised by the move.

“I feel like there’s no other option to prove that we’re not going to sell our souls to Wall Street,” Jensen said.

The company is publicly traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange.

At about 6 a.m. in Bangor, a line of about 30 employees, many wearing red, took to the downtown corner of Park and State streets to picket in the rain just down the street from the FairPoint building. Others gathered at 645 Odlin Road, where the company employs outside technicians.

“We don’t want more money. We just want a fair contract,” said Sanda Kearns-Rogers of Bangor, who works in customer service.

“We have bills to pay, just like everybody else,” said Lori Hall, a Brewer resident who also works as a customer service representative for FairPoint.

Since Aug. 28, members of the unions that represent FairPoint’s employees have been working under the company’s terms, to which they did not agree. Those terms included a pension freeze that took effect this week and a costlier health care plan. The revised terms, as dictated by management, gave FairPoint the ability to bring in outside contractors.

Early Friday, the company said it remains willing to negotiate, as long as any counteroffer “meaningfully addresses the core issues of these negotiations.”

“The previous contracts with our unions expired in early August and, unfortunately, despite months of negotiations, the two sides remain far apart on the issues we think are key to the future of the company,” FairPoint spokeswoman Angelynne Beaudry said in a prepared statement.

Beyond Maine, about another 1,200 local members of the IBEW and the CWA went on strike in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Union members in Portland said leaders urged them months ago to start building their savings in anticipation of a difficult round of negotiations and possible strike.

Kearns-Rogers, Hall and Tina Fickett of Clifton, who works in sales, all said they worried about keeping their jobs.

The workers began demonstrations at FairPoint offices around the state early Friday, hoping to get company officials to continue bargaining over a contract that expired in August and covers about another 1,200 employees in New Hampshire and Vermont.

As picketers began gathering Friday, police departments in a number of Maine communities stationed officers near FairPoint facilities.

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