Fight for good jobs by 2,000 FairPoint workers is impacting races in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont
With FairPoint poised to cut off workers’ health coverage on Halloween, the threat to region’s middle-class is a frightening reality pols can’t ignore
MANCHESTER, N.H.—In the final weekend before Tuesday’s election, the strike at FairPoint Communications has become a major issue in races across northern New England. The two-week-old strike by nearly 2,000 union workers has drawn candidates to the picket lines in all three states and factored in New Hampshire’s final gubernatorial debate.
[cryout-pullquote align=”right” textalign=”right” width=”30%”]“We’re not looking to get rich, we’re just looking to sustain our families. We offered the company a compromise that would save them millions in health care costs, but they refused. We’ve got to stand up for our families and for good jobs.”[/cryout-pullquote]The dispute at FairPoint is set to get even more intense on Halloween, as the company has announced it will cut off striking workers’ health care coverage at midnight. With the strike—and the election campaign—heating up, following is an overview of the role the strike has played in the region’s races:
New Hampshire – In the Granite State debate on Wednesday, both gubernatorial candidates were asked about their stance on the FairPoint strike. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan offered strong support for the strikers, saying “these are workers who for the last three years have been helping FairPoint recover from bankruptcy, working incredibly hard to get the company back on its feet.”
Hassan went on to say, “I’ll continue to urge this North Carolina company to think about New Hampshire-specific solutions and the New Hampshire workers who are really trying to come to the table and work with the company.”
Republican challenger Walt Havenstein initially hedged his response to the FairPoint question, saying “both sides are right.” But Havenstein went on to say of the workers that he “respected their right to negotiate.”
Vermont – On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch issued a letter to FairPoint CEO Paul H. Sunu noting that he’d “visited with those walking the picket line in Burlington” and heard their “passionate commitment to customer service.” Welch said, “I strongly urge you to return to the bargaining table in good faith and find common ground with the working men and women of your company.”
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, though not up for re-election, held a press conference with FairPoint strikers on Wednesday and criticized the telecom firm for “putting the interests of the multi-billion dollar hedge fund companies who own the company ahead of its workers and customers.”
Maine – U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has made multiple visits to FairPoint picket lines, as have Democratic candidate for governor Mike Michaud, Senate candidate Shenna Bellows, and congressional candidate Emily Cain.
The FairPoint workers—members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) System Council T9 and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 1400—have been encouraged by the high profile attention the strike has received.
“It’s great to see that we’ve got so many allies in this fight,” said Todd Bedard, a FairPoint service technician in New Hampshire and a member of IBEW Local 2320. “The company’s move to cut off our health care coverage shows that they’re out to gut good jobs in northern New England. But we’ve been preparing for this fight, so we’ve got our money saved and our friends standing with us, so we’re not going away.”
“The stakes in this strike are becoming very clear,” said Nicole Johnston, a FairPoint customer service representative in Bangor, Maine, and a member of CWA Local 1400. “If a telecom company can cut benefits to the bone, then no middle-class worker is safe. I grew up in a phone company family, so these were the benefits that gave us a good life. But what am I going to do for my daughters if our health care goes away?”
“We’re not looking to get rich, we’re just looking to sustain our families,” said Mike Gauthier, a FairPoint service technician in Brattleboro, Vt., and a member of IBEW Local 2326. “We offered the company a compromise that would save them millions in health care costs, but they refused. We’ve got to stand up for our families and for good jobs.”
Contract talks at FairPoint began on April 25 when the company came to the table with proposals that would cost workers more than $700 million. The company sought to freeze pensions, dramatically raise health care costs, cut retiree health care, and institute a two-tier wage system that would pay new hires as little as minimum wage. In addition, the company sought to outsource union members’ work to out-of-state and foreign contractors.
Though the workers offered compromises worth more than $200 million in savings for the company, the company rejected every significant union proposal. The company declared an impasse on August 27 and imposed the terms and conditions of their proposals on the workers. The unions have charged the company with violating federal labor law and are seeking injunctive relief from the National Labor Relations Board.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) System Council T9 includes local unions in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont and represents nearly 1,700 employees at FairPoint Communications. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 1400 represents nearly 300 FairPoint employees in the three states. For more information, visit www.FairnessAtFairpoint.com.