Hundreds of striking workers rallied in downtown Portland, Maine, on Nov. 8, just days before union negotiators and FairPoint executives are scheduled to restart mediation talks.
Both sides agreed to an invitation to attend a Nov. 18 meeting in the Boston office of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The question looming over the talks is whether FairPoint will end months of stonewalling and will send a team willing to negotiate and with the power to do so.
Nearly 1,700 workers represented by the IBEW and 300 from the CWA walked off the job Oct. 17, two months after the company declared an impasse and imposed a contract. The strike came after three months of fruitless negotiations with FairPoint. The company proposed a draconian cut in labor costs: nearly $700 million over three years by slashing wages for new employees, freezing pensions for all employees, ending health care for retirees and freeing the company to outsource and offshore union work.
“We’ve always been committed to reaching an agreement that ensures good jobs and quality service for northern New England,” said Augusta, Maine, Local 2327 Business Manager Peter McLaughlin, one of the unions’ chief negotiators. “We’ll be in Boston ready to find common ground, and we urge the company to return to the table in the same spirit.”
IBEW and CWA members on strike at FairPoint came together Nov 8 for rally in downtown Portland. (Photos courtesy Fairness@ FairPoint)
The announcement that mediation talks would resume came days after the North Carolina-based company --owned by a consortium of hedge funds-- ended health coverage for all striking workers.
“I wouldn’t call this a resumption of negotiations because you can’t call an ultimatum negotiating.” said Mike Spillane, business manager of Montpelier, Vt., Local 2326. “Would it be a surprise to go down and see they’re not doing anything? Not really, but if they are ready to actually do the work, we will be ready.”
Spillane, 27-year employee, said the decision to cut off health coverage was unprecedented. Fifteen years ago, when he and fellow Local 2326 members last went out on strike, the business was still owned by Verizon. That strike went on for more than 17 weeks, and the company never shut down health insurance, Spillane said, because Verizon understood that when the ended they would all have to work together to rebuild.
“I have members facing surgeries and chemo or their kids are going through chemo,” he said. “What FairPoint executives don’t understand is how proud we are of the work we do and the lives we’ve built for ourselves and our families and putting our health and financial security at risk won’t make us forget that. My hope is that they get serious before they destroy this company.”
McLaughlin said he believes the company is coming to the table, at least in part, because replacement workers and management staff can’t keep up with customer service requests. Official reports on customer complaints will not be released until January, but two unseasonably early Nor’easters cut phone lines across the region and local media have reported stories of customers unable to reach the company or days and long waits before phone or Internet service.
“Customer service is certainly degraded,” McLaughlin said.
In a press release, FairPoint spokeswoman Angelynne Beaudry confirmed that service call levels are up more than 250 percent since the strike began but she blamed nuisance calls and “the use of auto-dialer services.” Last month company officials also accused the strikers of sabotage.
McLaughlin said the charge was laughable.
“It just goes to show how little they understand how close we are to our community,” he said. “The reality is we would never think of cutting off phone service to our families and neighbors. Really? We would cut our parents and friends off from the fire department, EMS and police? That’s what they’re doing paying untrained, out-of-state, nonunion technicians instead of negotiating with us.”
Spillane said morale is high. Many of the strikers worked for the phone company before FairPoint, before Verizon, and he said most of them expect to be there after the North Carolina company sells to some other, hopefully more responsible, owner. To emphasize that long term vision, Spillane said the strikers’ mantra is “One day longer, one day stronger.”
“For [FairPoint CEO] Sunu this has become a manhood thing. He wants to bring us to our knees. For us this is about our lives and the lives of our children,” Spillane said. “They froze our pensions; we didn’t cross the picket line. They killed our health insurance; we didn’t cross the picket line. Forget machismo. This is about: will we have careers at the end of this? Can we do honest work for our customers and neighbors and still afford to volunteer at the fire department, coach Little League or go on vacation? Can we have health care and a dignified retirement? Can our children go to college and find decent jobs? That is what we’re fighting for.”
FairPoint CEO: ‘If I have too Many Cows, I Send Some to Slaughter’
Mike Spillane, business manager of Montpelier, Vt., Local 2326 said relations with FairPoint have always been difficult, but one day in particular stands out.
Just over four years ago, as the company was coming out of bankruptcy, FairPointCEO Paul Sunu came up to Vermont to talk to employees about the company’s future. Spillane said Sunu gave a PowerPoint presentation filled with graphs and financial projections to a packed audience. Then Sunu asked for questions and called on a worker with a temporary contract.
“This young guy asked Sunu what the chances were that these temp jobs -- and there were a lot at that time -- would be made permanent. This is his life right? That’s the most important thing to him and his family," Spillane said. “And Sunu does this double-take and says, ’I’m talking about the company’s future and you ask me about one job? That’s your question?’”
With obvious reluctance, Spillane said, Sunu returned to pie charts and bar charts, talking about the numbers.
“Then he turns back to the guy and says, ‘Look, I’m no different from a farmer. If I have too many cows, I send some out to slaughter.’” Spillane said. “The room went silent.”
Spillane said a blizzard of texts, tweets and emails spread the word to every corner of the company in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine in about 15 minutes.
“I couldn’t believe he said it, But in a way it was refreshing. We heard from the man himself what he thinks of us,” Spillane said. “I’m not saying this strike was born that day, but I think some of our strength was.”