ST. ALBANS CITY— The FairPoint Communications strike made its way to Franklin County beginning Monday, where an estimated 40 to 50 employees live.
Several members of the local, Colchester-based chapter of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, IBEW 2326, stood outside of the FairPoint building at Bank Street and Maiden Lane Tuesday afternoon talking with passersby, waving to drivers who beeped, and blocking anyone who tried to enter the building.
“A lot of us who lived up here wanted to be up here,” said IBEW 2326 vice president and 44-year-old Georgia resident Tara Wright.
The strike against the North Carolina-based company and its contract offerings, which began on Oct. 17, includes participation from some 1,700 workers across northern New England states and 450 employees in Vermont. Workers, their unions, and even U.S. Senators are asking that FairPoint return to the negotiation table, but so far those calls have gone unheeded.
In the meantime, people like Wright, whose husband also works for FairPoint, are starting to face the harsh realities that come with union strikes: You aren’t getting paid, and it’s hard to find a job when you may only be a temporary employee.
According to those picketing here on Tuesday, FairPoint has forced the union action, due to severe cuts in benefits in the proposed contract.
Wright explained that there are three big issues. The first, she said, is increased healthcare costs that will eliminate any coverage of employee family members.
“We understand we need to pay into [our healthcare],” Wright said. But, she added, when family coverage is taken away, wages need to go up an appropriate amount to make up the difference.
“They tell us they’re not affecting our wages,” Wright said. With an extra $5,000 a year for those family health costs, she countered, that’s like docking $2.40 for every hour she works.
The second issue, said picketer and 47-year-old Georgia resident Tim Rickard, is freezing employee pensions. “You have a lot of people here who have been working many years – in the teens or 20s – relying on that pension,” he said.
The third issue is that FairPoint won’t rule out bringing in outside contractors, meaning the company’s primary workers will not only lose their work, but there’s the possibility of them having to move to other locations with little notice.
Wright explained that these three items were the breaking point, sending employees to the picket line and asking for their old contract terms. “They just keep piling it on,” she said. “Basically, we’re bargaining. We’d be happy to stay where we are, but we don’t want to go backwards.”
FairPoint has currently only offered a plan that will cut labor costs by $700 million to date. Union leaders made a counter offer to reduce that cut to $200 million, which FairPoint rejected.
“The company has not countered at all,” said Rickard.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I.-Vt. held a press conference Tuesday calling FairPoint to negotiate with worker unions.
“FairPoint is putting the interests of the multi-billion-dollar hedge funds, which own the company, ahead of its workers and customers. That is not acceptable,” said Sanders. “My message to FairPoint is not complicated: Go back to the bargaining table. Negotiate in good faith. Agree to a contract that is fair to the workers, the customers and the company as soon as possible.”
At the moment, negotiations are at a standstill. Wright said she and the others hope that will change soon, but for now, all are out on the picket line between five and 10 hours a day.
Wright and the others said on Tuesday they have been pleasantly surprised at the support they’re receiving when they stand outside. Community members have brought them coffee, food, and have waved as they pass by.
FairPoint Communications customers are also stopping by to tell picketers about all the difficulty they’ve had with slow service since the strike began, said Wright. “They don’t have the experienced technicians on the job,” she said. “They have managers and out-of-state workers trying to keep up.”
The striking employees are also facing challenges since they are no longer getting paid. “Our paychecks stop on Thursday as of midnight,” said Steven Archambeault, a 42-year-old Fairfield resident and FairPoint employee. “We’re not getting paid to be out here.”
While FairPoint employees are starting to search out other jobs, Wright said that isn’t always easy.
“I think people are starting to look,” she said. “[But] it’s kind of hard – people don’t want to hire temporary workers.”
This is especially difficult for husband and wife teams who are both FairPoint Communications employees. Rickard pointed out that Wright and her husband, 43-year-old, Shawn Wright, both work for FairPoint.
“So they have zero income right now,” Rickard said.
Shawn Wright added, “We are desperately seeking jobs from those who are willing to understand the situation we’re in.”
Tara Wright has applied to multiple places including Walmart. “I’m looking for whatever labor is out there,” she said.