The Fall of 2014 ended with unusually bitter cold and piles of snow on the ground.
While many were at home snuggled up to a nice warm fire, the unionized workers from FairPoint Communication were walking the picket line. Failed negotiations led to what ultimately became a four-month strike through the coldest and snowiest winter in recent history.
It was the strength and solidarity of the workers and the political savvy of one Executive Councilor that helped end the bitter dispute.
In mid-October 2014, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communication Workers of America, which represent the 1,700 employees at FairPoint Communications, collectively decided to walk off the job in protest.
“The company’s actions have brought us to this place,” said Peter McLaughlin, Business Manager of IBEW Local 2327 in Maine. “We did not want to take this step. Our members want to work; they want to take care of their customers. However, our bargaining team worked as hard as we could to reach a fair agreement that would preserve good jobs and help the company prosper. We’ve offered significant concessions to this company that would save them hundreds of millions of dollars. But they absolutely refuse to compromise on any significant issue.”
As the strike began, FairPoint made wild accusations, without any proof, that strikers were sabotaging equipment.
“It’s outrageous that management is lobbing these accusations at the very workers who’ve poured our blood, sweat, and tears into making this a viable company in our region,” said Chris Whidden, a Service Splice Technician and a member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 2327 in Maine.
Continued attempts to negotiate failed. Elected leaders from all across New England spoke out against FairPoint and their failure to resolve this strike.
As the weeks went on FairPoint began hiring “scabs,” non-union workers willing to walk across the strike line. FairPoint was caught anonymously posting job applications for telecom workers on Monster.com at nearly four times the pay of the average FairPoint employee. If these scab workers stayed in New England for a full year, they would have pulled in over $300,000.
By mid-December, FairPoint workers had been on strike for sixty days and it did not appear that anything was going to bring the striking union members and FairPoint back together again. Something was going to have to change and shake the negotiations up.
That is exactly what happened.
A Game Changer
Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern had publicly voiced his support for the striking workers, but the maneuver he flawlessly executed in the Executive Council changed the entire game.
Those who do not live in the Granite State may not know what the Executive Council is. As Van Ostern explained, “The Executive Council is a group of five Councilors, each representing a region with roughly a quarter-million New Hampshire citizens, who are elected to help the Governor of New Hampshire manage our state government.”
“Many people compare it to a Board of Directors for our state executive branch. The Councilors review and vote on all nominations by the Governor (i.e., judges, boards and commissions, etc.) and nearly all state contracts,” continued Van Ostern.
The Executive Council was set to meet on December 23, 2014 and one of the agenda items was renewing the State’s contract for telephone and internet services through FairPoint Communications. Van Ostern had immediate reservations about renewing the contract, especially after hearing multiple complaints from constituents.
“During the strike I got dozens of calls from New Hampshire residents, businesses, and even a few town buildings who had no [phone] service for weeks and needed help. At one point, a contractor from out of state showed up at a home in a rural town I represent, with a box of wires and instructions for the woman who lived there to fix her telephone service herself. It was outrageous. When I asked FairPoint executives what was going on, they said that contractor had been fired – but it was also clear the company needed their professional, well-trained labor force on the job to get back to normal,” said Van Ostern.
On the day of the Executive Council meeting finally arrived, Van Ostern had made his choice.
“There’s no way I was going to approve a multi-million dollar contract for state phones and internet lines with FairPoint, when it wasn’t even clear if the company could live up to its existing contracts in the middle of the strike…I asked Governor Hassan and the other Executive Councilors to remove it from the agenda until we could be sure FairPoint could really live up to its promises.”
This simple maneuver sent shockwaves through the region and sent FairPoint scrambling.
“New Hampshire just a sent strong signal to the executives back at FairPoint’s North Carolina headquarters,” said Glenn Brackett, (then) business manager of Local 2320 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “It’s become clear that the company’s attack on its skilled and experienced workforce is an attack on every one of its New Hampshire customers.”
“This is a serious wake-up call to the executives of FairPoint. For years, they’ve been pushing to outsource work to low-wage contractors. But the wave of service outages during this strike shows that you can’t run a high-tech company with cut-rate contractors,” said Don Trementozzi, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1400.
The Strike Comes To An End
With New Hampshire’s multi-million, multi-year contract with FairPoint placed on indefinite hold, FairPoint had finally decided they needed to resolve this dispute before they lost any more business.
The two sides once again sat down to discuss the terms of a new contract, one that would benefit both the workers and FairPoint.
In late February 2015, FairPoint and its workers’ unions had reached an agreement.
FairPoint agreed to a union-administered health insurance plan with better benefits that will cost workers and the company less.
FairPoint also agreed to eliminate the two-tier wage structure that would have paid new hires as much as 20 percent less to do the same jobs as current workers.
“This agreement is a win for our members and for future FairPoint employees,” said Trementozzi. “We went on strike last October because we are committed to keeping good, middle-class jobs in New England. Our members walked the lines for more than four months, not just for themselves, but for future generations. Our success will benefit FairPoint workers—and New England’s working families—for years to come.”
Ultimately it was the strength and solidarity of the workers, with some help from their political leaders, which brought this strike to a successful conclusion.
“Our members are incredible. They walked the picket lines in blizzards and sub-zero temperatures. They stayed strong and they stayed together,” said Mike Spillane, Business Manager of IBEW Local 2326 in Vermont.
Political Leaders, like Colin Van Ostern, showed that striking workers were not alone and helped to give them the strength they needed to continue standing on that line until a contract was reached.