FairPoint officials are reassuring customers that they will be unaffected by a strike called by nearly 2,000 employees of FairPoint Communications in three states – including roughly 900 in Maine – who walked off their jobs at midnight Thursday.

FairPoint has offered landline telephone and Internet service to customers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont since 2007 when it bought Verizon’s landline business in northern New England for $2.3 billion. In 2012, the company had 290,000 access lines serving customers in Maine, according to the state Public Utilities Commission.

FairPoint spokesperson Angelynne Beaudry said Friday morning that the company is “disappointed” with the unions’ decision to walk out. She said the company has always been willing to negotiate and consider counterproposals from the unions that “meaningfully addresses the core issues of these negotiations.”

“So far we have not received any such counterproposals,” she said.

To address customer concerns, Beaudry said FairPoint has in place “comprehensive contingency plans” to ensure customers will be unaffected by the strike.

Pete McLaughlin, a spokesman for two unions that represent workers, said the strike is necessary because it has become clear the company is unwilling to back off its demand for more than $700 million in contract concessions.

“We want the public to know that FairPoint Communications isn’t being fair with their employees and have little regard for these states’ telecommunications structure,” McLaughlin said. “They are putting each state’s economy at risk.”

The determination to strike was made around 7 p.m. Thursday, McLaughlin said, noting that he and other union officials agonized over the decision for weeks. The unions authorized a strike in July, but union leadership had tried to avoid that course of action.

“When it comes down to taking 1,900 people out of work, I don’t take that lightly,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights.”

Charlotte, N.C.-based FairPoint and its primary unions – the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents 1,700 workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, and the Communication Workers of America, which represents nearly 300 workers in the three states – have been negotiating a new labor contract since April. The employees have been working under the provisions of a contract that expired Aug. 2.

The telecom company arrived at the negotiating table in April with a list of concessions that would cost its unionized workers $700 million in reduced health care coverage and a freeze in pensions, the unions say.

But FairPoint on Aug. 28 walked away from the negotiating table, claiming the parties had reached an impasse. This move allowed the company to impose the terms of the contract it originally proposed in April. The unions filed three complaints with the National Labor Relations Board related to the company’s move. Last week, the board dismissed two of the unions’ bad-faith charges against FairPoint, but said it would continue to investigate a third. The new contract that the company has imposed on the employees this week froze the old pension and will require workers to contribute to health care costs for the first time.

FairPoint says it needs to cut labor costs to remain competitive. Under the previous contracts that expired in August, the company paid 100 percent of all health care premiums for its unionized workforce in northern New England, provided unlimited paid sick days, a defined benefit pension plan with no employee contributions, and a 401K plan with a company match, according to Beaudry. All of that adds up to make the average wage and benefits costs per worker in northern New England to be $115,000 a year, not including future pension costs and post-retirement benefits.

“At no point in the negotiation did FairPoint propose to reduce base wages for existing employees,” Beaudry said. “We sought instead to bring the existing health care and pension benefits in line with what we believe are mainstream for employees in the region, and transition union-represented employees to the same or similar benefit plans as offered to other FairPoint employees, including management. We believe these changes are fair to our employees while enabling the company to provide modern telecommunication products and services to our customers, communities and states at a competitive price.”

FairPoint has struggled financially since acquiring the Verizon landline business in northern New England in 2007. It filed for bankruptcy 18 months after its acquisition, emerging in 2011. However, it has struggled to become profitable ever since. It lost $54.9 million in the first two quarters of 2014, according to its financial statements.

One of the unions’ chief complaints is the company’s expressed desire to use non-union contract workers.

Jenn Nappi, assistant business manager for IBEW Local 2327 in Augusta, said the unions have made several counterproposals that would save the company more than $200 million.

“We were trying to be extremely creative in ways to save the company money and they just scoffed at it,” she said, adding that the company never made any counter proposals.

“We’ve exhausted every means possible,” she said. “Because we care about the customers, we want to do our job, but the company is imposing Draconian terms. It’s got to the point where we need to say, ‘No more.’ ”

Nappi believes the company was never interested in negotiating with the unions and is only trying to position itself for the sale of its northern New England assets or to deliver dividends to its shareholders.

“All the concessions they’re looking for are on the balance-sheet side, which would make them more attractive for a sale,” she said.

When asked what the strike would mean for FairPoint’s customers, Nappi was not encouraging. “Unfortunately, I don’t think it will be good for the customers,” she said.

She expects the company will try to bring in replacement workers, but predicted that will not turn out well.

“This isn’t a job you can bring just anyone in to do. These are skilled jobs. You need to know what you’re doing,” Nappi said. “I think they’re mistaken in their idea that they can just run this company with people they hire with no training or experience on these systems.”

At midnight Thursday, union leadership arrived at 5 Davis Farm Road in Portland, where the company’s state headquarters are located, to escort union employees working in the company’s 24-hour response center off the premises, Nappi said. Formal picket lines started early Friday morning at FairPoint facilities at 45 Forest Ave. and on Davis Farm Road in Portland, and at facilities in Kennebunk, Lewiston, Brunswick, Machias, Houlton and Millinocket.

Despite the prospect of the company bringing in replacement workers, Nappi believes the strike will be successful.

“We have no choice but to do this,” Nappi said. “The effect of the strike will be to force FairPoint to realize they have a highly skilled workforce and that they need to come back to the table and be reasonable.”

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud joined the picket line at Davis Farm Road at 10 a.m. on Friday in solidarity with the union workers.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

Whit Richardson can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: whit-richardson