For the first time in more than four months, Shawna Frechette of Saco pulled into a parking space at the FairPoint Communications facility on Davis Farm Road in Portland, eager to return to work with her fellow union members after a long, arduous strike.
“I think we’re all thrilled to be back,” she said Wednesday morning before heading back to her wholesale equipment sales job.
More than 1,700 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America in northern New England ratified a new contract with FairPoint over the weekend and resumed their jobs Wednesday. The contract bridges a $500 million gap between what the company wanted in concessions and what the unions were willing to give up.
The compromise preserved the workers’ pension plan, although the company’s contribution will be reduced. It also calls for workers to pay for a portion of their health insurance, and the union saved money by finding an insurance plan that is cheaper than what the company had provided before the strike. Health insurance for retirees was eliminated and the company will provide a cash stipend instead.
FairPoint, which operates in 17 states and has the largest landline phone network in northern New England, won the right to hire outside contractors, with limitations. On the issue of pay, workers will get a flat payment of $400 and small raises the next two years.
For Frechette, returning to work is a relief. She had a few temporary jobs during the strike, which began Oct. 17, including as a store clerk at Target, but the walkout took a toll on her family’s finances.
“It was especially tough at Christmastime,” she said.
Another worker, Brenda Piersol, was as happy with the outcome of the strike as she was to be getting back to her job in business sales for the company.
“I’m very thrilled with this whole thing,” said Piersol, who had never been a member of a union before. “It’s a fair contract.”
Piersol had kept her real estate license active and worked selling homes during the strike.
Down the road from the FairPoint building, a handful of officials from the postal worker and Teamsters unions set up where FairPoint pickets had walked during the strike, welcoming the workers back. As they drove past, workers honked their car horns, acknowledging the support,
“People are happy to be back to work and taking care of our customers and cleaning up the mess left behind by the scabs,” said Jen Nappi, a business agent for the IBEW in Augusta, referring to the replacement workers hired by FairPoint to maintain service during the strike.
Barry Sine, an analyst who follows FairPoint for Drexel Hamilton, a New York-based brokerage, said it will take 30 to 45 days for the company’s workforce to restore service quality to pre-strike levels, The Associated Press reported. According to a report filed with the Maine Public Utilities Commission, customer service complaints more than doubled in Maine during the strike.
But company spokeswoman Angelynne Amores Beaudry said the problems were manageable.
“The FairPoint network performed exceptionally during the work stoppage and our well-trained and qualified contract workforce provided superb support of that network,” she said in written statement.
Tim Doughty, president of the American Postal Workers Union local in Portland, said the FairPoint strike provided a jolt to the union movement.
“It showed a degree of solidarity that people thought doesn’t exist any more,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Joe Piccone, a business agent for a Teamsters local in South Portland, said he was told that only one Maine union member out of 700 crossed the line in Maine during the strike.
“We’ve got a great deal of gratitude to the brothers and sisters here,” Piccone said. “And now they’re back to work together.”
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: