- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A nor’easter that arrived Tuesday could deliver the first major test for replacement workers hired by FairPoint Communications in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, with driving rain and strong wind gusts possibly causing service disruptions as more than 1,700 workers remain on strike.

The company, meanwhile, accused striking workers of intimidating contractors and employees and said an automated phone-jamming effort attempted to disrupt its call centers.

Charlotte, North Carolina-based FairPoint Communications Inc., which offers Internet, telephone and other services, said it sent a letter to the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, asking them to stop members from engaging in activities aimed at disruption or intimidation.

Striking workers said they have the right to follow employees and contractors and to picket their work sites as long as they don’t disrupt work. The unions also said they were unaware of any phone-jamming activity.

“We will continue to work hard to ensure that our labor action is safe and respectful to our neighbors and friends throughout northern New England, but we will not let the company use these spurious and unfounded allegations to take the spotlight off of the company’s unfair practices,” the unions responded in a statement.

The company and unions traded accusations as a storm arrived in the region with the prospect of 5 inches or more of rain and winds gusting up to 30 mph on Wednesday and Thursday.

Wind-driven rain could lead to problems because FairPoint hasn’t properly maintained its network, said Jim Feeney, a striking outside repair technician and safety specialist.

“It all depends on the fury of the storm to determine how big of an impact there is,” said Feeney, who normally works out of an operations center in Bangor, Maine.

The rain can get into cables. And heavy winds can bring down wires and telephone poles, knocking out electricity, sapping the network’s backup batteries.

FairPoint agreed that the weather could be a problem, saying it’s “deploying all available resources to prepare for and respond to any storm related impact.”

Workers, who’ve accused the company of bargaining in bad faith, are angry over a contract imposed by the company after it declared a stalemate in negotiations.

The company is requiring workers to contribute to health insurance for the first time and freezing pensions, replacing them with 401(k) plans going forward. Other provisions allow the company to hire contractors and to eliminate retiree health care benefits for current workers.

Striking workers, represented by Communications Workers of American and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, have asked the National Labor Relations Board to order the company back to the negotiating table. A decision could come next month.

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