Workers and labor leaders gathered Monday in Portland to celebrate labor history, and also drew attention to a potential strike by FairPoint Communications employees in the wake of a breakdown in contract negotiations.
The Southern Maine Labor Council’s annual Labor Day breakfast at the Maine Irish Heritage Center traditionally honors the role that unions played in the development of the country, but this year took on a more serious tone as union members rallied in support of FairPoint workers.
After the breakfast, more than 300 people gathered in Longfellow Square for a boisterous demonstration. Workers wearing red T-shirts and holding signs called for FairPoint officials to approve a fair contract, chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, corporate greed has got to go.”
“We have the fight of our lifetime on our hands,” Julie Dawkins, a FairPoint employee and recording secretary for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2327, said at the breakfast. “We’re taking this fight to the street.”
More than 1,700 workers represented by the IBEW and the Communications Workers of America are on standby for a possible strike after FairPoint last Thursday announced an impasse in contract negotiations. The company walked away from the negotiating table after four months of labor talks, paving the way for an employee lockout or strike.
The unions represent nearly 800 FairPoint workers in Maine.
After the breakfast, about 100 people – including workers from other unions in Maine – marched to Longfellow Square to join close to 200 FairPoint workers for a rally. They planned to continue on to a FairPoint building on Forest Avenue for an educational picket.
“We are so overwhelmed and thrilled with the level of support here today,” said Jenn Nappi, assistant business manager for IBEW Local 2327 in Augusta. “Labor always turns out, and in the end I believe the worker will win.”
FairPoint officials say their final contract proposal doesn’t change current wage rates for existing employees; offers substantially the same benefit plans, including medical coverage that was similar to what managers receive; freezes the existing defined-benefit pension plan while preserving employees’ accrued benefits; and eliminates retiree medical benefits for current employees.
The unions accused the telecommunications company of negotiating in bad faith and filed a complaint Thursday morning with the National Labor Relations Board.
In 2012, FairPoint had 290,000 access lines serving customers in Maine, according to the state Public Utilities Commission.
Before the march, the Southern Maine Labor Council presented its “Working Class Hero” award to U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democratic candidate for governor. Michaud said receiving the award was “humbling” but a great honor after working for three decades on labor issues. He worked for more than 20 years at Great Northern Paper Co. in East Millinocket
“Labor built this country. Labor fought for this country,” Michaud said. “It was our sweat and tears that made this country what it is today.”
Tefere Gebre, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, was the keynote speaker at the breakfast. Gebre, who moved to the United States from Ethiopia as a teenage political refugee, urged unions to stay strong and to engage the younger generation of workers.
“We need a vibrant middle class that fights every day,” he said.
Gebre also spoke about the importance of stepping up against companies like FairPoint and encouraged members of other unions to continue to stand in solidarity with FairPoint employees.
“These fights aren’t easy or fun, but we have to do what we have to do,” he said. “The 13 million workers who belong to the AFL-CIO, we’ve got your back.”