FairPoint strikers show their solidarity as they return to work with a new contract

Wearing red to demonstrate their solidarity, FairPoint workers in New England returned to work on February 25. Their return ended a four-month strike that affected telecommunication services in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

Before the 1,700 striking workers, who belong to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Communication Workers of America (CWA), returned to work they ratified a new three-year collective bargaining agreement.

When FairPoint and its unions began negotiating a new contract last summer, the company, which hasn’t turned a profit since emerging from bankruptcy in 2011, demanded $700 million worth of concessions that would have eliminated benefits and job security.

Workers said that solidarity made it possible for them to succeed in resisting most of the company’s concession demands.

“We survived on the support we received from each other and our supporters,” said Julie Dawkins, a FairPoint worker from Portland, Maine to the Portland Press Herald. “We are like family now. We are definitely stronger than before.”

Among the concessions demanded by FairPoint, the company wanted to increase workers’ monthly out-of-pocket health care cost by between $400 and $1200, eliminate their defined benefit pension, implement a two-tiered wage system that would lower new hire pay by about 20 percent, and eliminate restrictions on outsourcing, which put the jobs of all union workers at risk.

When workers balked at making these steep concessions, FairPoint walked away from the negotiations, and imposed new terms of employment that included all of its concession demands.

Workers gave the company some time to reconsider its rash actions, but in October when it appeared the FairPoint wasn’t going to change its decision, the workers went on strike.

The company made every effort to break the strike including hiring replacement workers, conducting surveillance of peaceful picketers, and slandering its own workers in the media.

But the workers stayed united.

“You held the line longer and stronger than even you thought possible,” said a message posted on the Fairness at FairPoint Facebook page. “You supported each other. You helped each other. You sacrificed and yet refused to give in no matter how hard things got. You loudly and proudly stood shoulder to shoulder with your brothers and sisters. You formed a bond that can never be broken, with people you may have never met before and those you already consider family.”

With the help of a federal mediator, the two side were able to reach an agreement that union negotiators called fair to both sides and an overwhelming majority of members ratified.

The new agreement preserves the strikers’ defined benefit pension, allows them to transfer to a union operated health care plan that provides quality benefits at a lower cost than the health care plan that FairPoint tried to impose, eliminates the two tier wage structure, and provides job protections against outsourcing.

The new agreement, however, does include some worker concessions.

The pension benefits accrued up to implementation of the new contract are frozen and beginning with the implementation of the new contract, the rate of benefit accrual is reduced by 50 percent.

New hires will have to wait 12 months instead of six months to get raises that will eventually put them at the same rate as current employees.

Under the previous collective bargaining agreement, workers had an unlimited number of sick days. Now, sick days are capped at six per year.

Retiree health care for current employees was eliminated. Those who retire within the next 30 months will be able to receive a stipend for health care expenses until they turn 65 and become eligible for Medicare.

Union negotiators said that they knew that it would be difficult to avoid making concessions.

The company’s financial difficulties and pressure from FairPoint’s hedge fund investors to shift more of the cost of doing business on to the backs of its workers gave the unions little room to maneuver.

Everyone understood that “this was a concessionary bargaining session,” said Peter McLaughlin who led union negotiations to the Bangor Daily News.

But the final outcome was better than most people thought possible.

When a reporter asked Scott Boudreau, a striker attending a ratification meeting in Portland, how he was going to vote, Boudreau responded, “I am voting for it. It is a good deal. It is far better than what they were trying to ram down our throats.”

The reporter also said that as he stood outside of the meeting room where the Portland ratification vote took place, he heard cheers and chants of “one day longer, one day stronger” as members prepared to vote on the new agreement.

“It was worth it to have the struggle,” said Curtis Lawrence, another striker to the reporter. “We stood up and had the fight. It’s one thing to give lip service, it’s another thing to do it.”

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