Still No End in Sight for Unions, Fairpoint Negotiations

By Jayna Smith

Union leaders from International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America—together representing nearly 2,000 Fairpoint Communications employees in the three states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont—have been in contract negotiations with Fairpoint Communications since April.  With union contracts having expired on August 2nd, there seems to be still no end in sight to the negotiations. 

Four Fairpoint workers report in Calais:  three installation and maintenance technicians and one central office (CO) technician.  Ed LaPointe of Calais is the CO technician.  He began his career in 1982 with Bell Atlantic which preceded both Verizon and Fairpoint Communications.  Throughout Washington County, LaPointe reported, there are approximately 15 Fairpoint employees.  All of these employees have been working under the terms of the expired contract which was good for five years, according to LaPointe, “because (the contract) took the transition from Verizon to Fairpoint” under the sale in 2008.

“The company wants $720,000,000 in concessions and basically they don’t want to deal with the union contract at all,” LaPointe explained.  “They don’t want the costs.  This company is owned primarily by five or six hedge funds in New York City.  After they went through bankruptcy (in 2009), that’s what bought up the debt, the stock.” 

The union, according to LaPointe, recently presented $188,000,000 worth of savings but Fairpoint declined.  “(Fairpoint) said they needed to have the $720,000,000.  As time went on and the union got the books, the company said they don’t really need (the $720,000,000), they want that.  They basically want to be able to contract work out when they want,” he said.  This will result in contracting out the existing jobs at a much lower cost, for “basically about minimum wage,” LaPointe stated.    

“(Fairpoint) wants to be able to outsource work, basically bring someone in to do my job,” he said.  When asked if this meant cutting back hours or laying him or others off, LaPointe replied, “We’re not really sure.  Rather than hiring people, like they had promised when they bought, their idea is ‘we can do it cheaper’ and that’s what they’re looking to do.  We’re not asking for anything, other than we want to keep what we have, which to me, that’s not really unfair to ask for.” 

LaPointe also reported that Fairpoint wants to freeze the existing pensions.  “There’s a couple of guys around that haven’t been here long enough to really get a pension yet and they won’t have one.  If somebody has 15 years and they work another 15 years on top of that, they will only get a 15 year pension.  Whatever they have at the end of this contract is what they will get and that’s it.”  Health benefits will be affected as well.  “(Fairpoint) wants to do away with health benefits for us.  I haven’t seen the proposal that they are giving but it’s nowhere near what we have now,” LaPointe said.   

Last Wednesday and Thursday union representatives met with Fairpoint in South Portland.  LaPointed reported, “The union gave the company a proposal Thursday.  The company took a little break, looked at it, came back and said, ‘We’re done for the day,’ no mention of when they’re coming back to meet again.  Nobody knows what they thought of the proposal.”

Peter McLaughlin, union representative for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, told The Calais Advertiser, “It’s the most bizarre negotiation I’ve ever been involved with.  One of the issues is (Fairpoint) won’t negotiate with us.  They had given us a proposal and that’s it, no presentation, no discussion, no dialogue.  It’s not progressing because there is no dialogue.”  He confirmed last Thursday’s meeting and stated that Fairpoint took the union’s proposal, saying it would be reviewed but declined to provide a date to meet again. 

Director of Corporate Communications at Fairpoint, Angelynne Amores Beaudry confirmed that contracting negotiating began in April and since that time, Fairpoint has met “about 22 times with the union and we have said to them on several occasions, ‘Here are our current issues we need to work on.’

“The company currently pays 100% of healthcare, 100% towards a retirement plan and contributes towards a second,” she said, adding, “The annual average wages and benefits for a union-represented employee (at Fairpoint) is $115,000.” 

She added, “Technology and the industry has changed and is changing and we have to make sure we are competitive in the market place and are ready to address the customer needs.  They have given us a proposal that we are reviewing and we are exploring our options.”  She could not comment on when a date may be set to meet again. 

Regarding his current day-to-day working conditions, LaPointe explained, “We don’t know from one day to the next.  We could still go on strike.  They could still lock us out.  Those two options are still there.  It’s hard on the nerves.”  Both a strike and a lockout mean no pay for employees.  “It’s tough being down here (in Calais) because we’re kind of removed from negotiations.” 

LaPointe feels the current situation definitely has an effect on consumers.  “Typically what happens in a work stoppage, orders get put on a back burner and it’s basically keeping people in service, troubles get done first.  Of course the work force is drastically reduced.  They’d be hoping for really good weather because in bad weather comes troubles,” he said, such as the Fourth of July tropical storm experienced in our area.  “Service is going to be affected by that.

“With Bell Atlantic and Verizon, they were national companies who could pull management from the west coast to fill in. Fairpoint doesn’t have that.  I don’t know what kind of training the replacement workers would have or are expected to have.  Nobody knows.

“We just want to be able to come back in and go to work.  The four of us that are here—we live here, everybody knows who we are.  We try to do the best we can with what we have to work with and that’s all we want to do and make whatever’s going to happen as seamless as possible,” LaPointe said.