'We’re Negotiating With Wolves of Wall Street': IBEW, CWA Two Weeks Into FairPoint Strike

It’s been two weeks since 2,000 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and Communications Workers of America (CWA) members in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine walked off the job when their employer FairPoint Communications declared an impasse in negotiations. The workers’ contracts expired on October 2nd, but they chose to keep working in hopes of an agreement being reached. After two weeks of unsuccess the employees began an unfair labor practice strike on October 17th.  

The strike has grown increasingly hostile with management accusing the striking workers of sabotage. The unions flatly denued the charges and suggested there is no evidence to support the claims.  

The unions say the cause of the dispute is the hedge funds which are looking to sell FairPoint Communications and a desire to phase out union representation to make their possible deal more attractive to potential buyers. 

Glenn Brackett, Business Manager of IBEW 2320 in New Hampshire told Labor Notes: “We’re not negotiating with a phone company, we’re negotiating with wolves of Wall Street.”

New terms imposed by Fairpoint following the impasse claim include a two-tiered pay system which would put new worker wages close to the minimum wage.  Other new employment terms include elimination of defined-benefit pensions for future hires, a freeze on contributions to existing pensions, and higher healthcare costs.

Union members contend that their highest priority is ensuring job security.  Jenn Nappi, Assistant Business Manager for IBEW 2327 in Maine told Labor Notes that members fear their jobs will eventually be outsourced.

“Their imposition gives them the freedom to outsource everything and eliminate 800 jobs in Maine, not to mention 1,700 in New England,” she said.

Both sides remain far apart with little common ground. The union has proposed a deal they say would save the company $200 million, according to Mike Spillane of IBEW Local 2326: “What FairPoint has done now is put out a demand in April and they’ve stayed right there since then. They haven’t moved at all.”

FairPoint is sticking by its demand of a whopping $700 million in savings and the aforementioned changes to wages and healthcare.  Angelynne Beaudry, FairPoint spokesperson, called the offer their “final proposal.”

Thus far the unions have filed three National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaints of bad faith bargaining. Two have been dismissed and the third is still being investigated.  If the complaint is substantiated it would go before an administrative judge assuming the parties have not agreed to a contract. 

Union action has shifted to FairPoint’s stakeholders, with many striking workers picketing a meeting of the Colby College Board of Trustees. FairPoint’s largest shareholder, Angelo Gordon, is a member of that board. 

Other members have attempted to put pressure on Vermont Governor Pete Shumlin. The aim is to convince the governor to wield his influence to restart negotiations.  The region’s labor groups and advocates have also leant their support both directly on the picket line and through social media.  The Liberty Union Party created a Change.org petition asking Gov. Shumlin to step in on behalf of the union workers.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has publicly expressed his concern and called on FairPoint to return to the bargaining table.  

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