By Patrick D. Longley
I wrote this essay after being on strike for just a few weeks. It has now been over three months. At the time this was written, I was experiencing many of the same feelings that are now a part of my daily routine: fear, uncertainty, and disappointment; however, these days there is deeper anger and stronger resolve. The strength and unity of the IBEW and CWA throughout this strike is inspirational and historical. While this essay is very personal, I feel that it is representative of the fight we are all actively participating in – as a union.
I was hired for employment as a Splice-Service Technician for Bell Atlantic on August 3, 1998. I was happy to have secured a union job with the potential to provide me with a good life. I started my career in Fitchburg, MA at a garage that was within walking distance of my apartment. I was assigned to the oldest open-back utility truck in the fleet, an early ‘80s three-speed manual GMC with over 200,000 hard miles on it. Seasoned technicians from the monopoly-era New England Telephone Company trained me. The early years were learning years. I accepted that in order to make a life for myself I had to be realistic and settle into a job that perhaps was not aligned with my “dreams,” but would be tolerable if not gratifying.
As it turned out, I found much gratification in this job, most notably through interactions with customers. In 2004, I leaped at an opportunity to transfer job location to Milton, VT. I’ve felt privileged to live within the beauty of Vermont’s landscape. I have become well acquainted with many of the towns in Northern Vermont and have been in many homes throughout Chittenden, Franklin, and Lamoille Counties. I have always tried to be respectful to each customer that I visit. Respect is the foundation of good working relationships.
In 2008, FairPoint Communications took over as my employer. They made many promises but the transition made my job less gratifying. Problems with systems caused service delays and unsatisfied customers. On October 26, 2009, FairPoint Communications filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection. The company emerged from bankruptcy in January 2011, thanks in large part due to tireless efforts by its union workforce.
In April 2014, with a contract set to expire in August, the IBEW and CWA (the unions which represent FairPoint’s workforce) formed a bargaining committee with the goal of negotiating a contract that would be fair for both parties. The unions presented comprehensive proposals that would have saved the company $200 million. Throughout the process, FairPoint did not actively participate in meaningful negotiation. The company’s unwillingness to negotiate demonstrated disrespect for its employees. In May, 25 percent of us in the Milton garage were forced to take on a new shift with only 2 weeks notice. This inconvenience to workers and our families seemed born of spite rather than a necessity of the business.
When our contract expired on August 2 of this year, the company and the union agreed to work under the old contract for an undetermined time period. But at the end of the month, the company declared an impasse and imposed an invariable contract devoid of compromise. The union filed unfair labor charges with the National Labor Relations Board. The climate at work was in no way gratifying.
As weeks progressed, the unions continued to attempt negotiation. FairPoint’s representatives maintained rigid adherence to their original proposal. The workload was heavy and so was the stress of the whole situation. The company’s demonstrated disrespect for its workforce was taking its toll on those of us who maintain the network.
On October 16, the union and the company met and no compromise was met. The union called a strike and on Friday the 17th I was walking the picket line in Milton. The company claimed that strikers “jammed” call center phone lines and caused service interruptions by vandalizing equipment. No evidence was ever presented. A full-page advertisement was placed in major newspapers stating that the average FairPoint worker is paid $115,000 annually – a blatant embellishment. (Before the strike, I had worked over 400 hours of overtime and, even so, fell far below that salary.)
Since this strike commenced, I’ve heard all the pro-union and anti-union arguments. I’ve read horribly negative remarks by the uninformed. I’ve had middle fingers pointed in my face. I’ve witnessed replacement workers doing my work in an inefficient and unsafe manner. But what sticks with me most is the support I’ve received from my fellow workers and our community. As a union, we are standing strong while facing middle fingers and invective. We are documenting unsafe work practices by replacement workers. We are making our case and receiving positive support from our elected officials. On October 28, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders held a press conference at his office in Burlington urging FairPoint to get back to the bargaining table. Governor Peter Shumlin made an encouraging visit to a picket line in St. Albans and listened to some of my fellow worker’s side of the story. It is time for FairPoint to show some support for its union workforce and focus on real negotiation. Respect is the foundation of good working relationships.
Patrick D. Longley