FairPoint Communications and unionized workers resumed bargaining Tuesday in an effort to come to an agreement before the current five-year contract runs out Saturday.
If the parties fail to reach an agreement by then, FairPoint employees belonging to two unions in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine have voted to authorize a strike as soon as next week.
Angelynne Amores Beaudry, Fairpoint's director of corporate communications, said the groups continue to bring propositions to the table "in good faith," and are not at a stalemate.
Union representative Mike Spillane, of IBEW Local 2326, wasn't as optimistic.
"Hopefully they'll be willing to work with us, but right now I don't see it happening," he said.
The dispute is largely over FairPoint's decision this year to freeze pensions for current employees, discontinue health care benefits of retirees and hire outside contractors to replace union workers, among other changes. FairPoint claims the changes will make the company more competitive in the telecommunications industry. Bargaining has been off-and-on since April 25.
The employees, which are represented the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Communication Workers of America (CWA), are bargaining together and have put their foot down in regard to the pensions and outside contractors.
"This is one of our true, core values and they're attacking us at the heart.
IBEW and CWA together represent about 1,800 FairPoint employees in northern New England. IBEW represents about 350 workers in Vermont; CWA, which is composed of customer service employees, represents 100 employees. IBEW is made up of "the guys you see on the trucks," Spillane said.
Two weeks ago, FairPoint Communications workers in Vermont and Maine authorized a strike, allowing union leaders to call employees to halt work at any point. Authorization votes in New Hampshire had been postponed due to storms and increased work volume, said Spillane, but now the final votes have been counted and New Hampshire had authorized the strike.
"The membership has overwhelming supported authorizing a strike. It's a last resort, but we are ready," said Don Trementozzi, spokesperson for CWA Local 1400.
A resolution, he added, will "take a lot of prayers."
FairPoint has offered the union over 65 proposals, Beaudry said, adding that the company is "very hopeful" that a resolution would be reached. In the event of a strike, FairPoint does have a contingency plan, though Beaudry said the company could not comment on the details of that plan.
"We want to provide the service that customers rely on," she said.
Unionized workers make an average of $115,000 a year with benefits. FairPoint also covers health care and paid sick leave.
If a resolution is not reached by Saturday, Spillane said union members might hold off on calling a strike if they believe an agreement can be reached.
"There's a lot of give and take it's going to take to get to that place," Spillane said. "If they're willing to be sincere enough - which they have not been so far - to say this is what we have to have, we can work with that. So far, FairPoint has not expressed a willingness to work with us."
The union plans a candlelight vigil outside its Burlington office on Main Street before the contract runs out at midnight Saturday.
"We hope to see a good number of people out there," Spillane said. "We'll be waiting to see what happens at midnight."