Telecom company FairPoint, unions for 1,700 workers reach tentative deal to end 4-month strike

Industries Associated Press

Northern New England's primary landline provider, FairPoint Communications, and two unions representing more than 1,700 workers announced Thursday that they had reached a tentative agreement to end a four-month strike.

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The tentative agreement follows more than a month of federally mediated negotiations. FairPoint workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont went on strike in October.

A statement released Thursday by the union and company didn't provide any details of the proposal that will be put to workers for a ratification vote. Workers will return to their jobs Feb. 25.

"The new labor agreements will provide employees with wages and benefits that are among the best in northern New England. At the same time, the agreements permit the company to achieve a much more competitive position in the marketplace," the joint statement said.

There was a big gulf between the two parties.

The previous contract included lucrative provisions that dated to the days when Verizon was the owner, and FairPoint said the new contract needed to bring worker benefits into sync with changes in the industry.

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Negotiators from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America knew concessions were necessary but contended the company was asking for too much too fast.

FairPoint Communications Inc., based in Charlotte, North Carolina, wanted to require workers to contribute to health care costs for the first time, freeze and replace the old pension, eliminate retiree health care benefits and have the ability to hire outside contractors.

The stakes were high for the company and for workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. During the 17-week strike, service outages and restoration delays brought criticism from consumers and regulators alike. New Hampshire temporarily held up a $13 million contract amid complaints.

FairPoint, which bills itself as the nation's sixth-largest telecom company, provides service in 17 states, but the lion's share is in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, where it has about 1 million lines.

The company has struggled since buying Verizon's landline holdings in Northern New England for $2.3 billion in 2007. Eighteen months after the deal closed, it filed for bankruptcy after losing customers because of operational and integration problems. It has continued to struggle since emerging from bankruptcy in 2011.