- Associated Press - Friday, August 1, 2014

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - FairPoint Communications and two unions representing 1,700 workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont continued to negotiate Friday as the expiration of the existing contract looms this weekend.

Union workers are unhappy with proposed changes to health and retirement benefits, as well as changes aimed at allowing greater use of nonunion workers. The company, which has struggled since buying Verizon’s landline telephone operations seven years ago, says its benefits are out of sync with industry norms.

Federal mediators arrived Friday to meet with both sides and to monitor the ongoing negotiations, said Mike Spillane, business manager for Local 2326 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

“The good news is we’re still talking,” Spillane said, pointing to new proposals offered to the company Friday. “As long as we’re not packing up our cars and going home, then there’s always hope.”

The current contract expires late Saturday, and union workers already have authorized a strike. The vote gives leaders of the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers the ability to call a strike, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a strike is imminent.

Contract negotiations were taking place in Nashua, New Hampshire, and were to continue Saturday if necessary.

The company said it has made preparations to ensure operations in the event of a strike.

“We have contingency plans in place so we can assure that our customers will have seamless, continued service,” said Angelynne Beaudry, a FairPoint spokeswoman based in Portland.

The company wants to freeze the union workers’ existing defined benefit pension plan for existing employees and convert the pension contributions into an existing 401(k) program already in place for workers; it also wants to make changes to the health care plan, of which FairPoint plays 100 percent of premiums.

The company also wants the ability to hire nonunion workers, something FairPoint believes is necessary to provide flexibility in a fast-changing environment, Beaudry said.

The North Carolina-based FairPoint grew sixfold overnight when it bought Verizon’s land holdings in northern New England for $2.3 billion in 2007. Critics said the company had bitten off more than it could chew, losing business because of operational and integration problems. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy about 18 months later.

FairPoint emerged from bankruptcy in 2011 but has still struggled to become profitable. The company has yet to reverse net losses posted for every year of operation since the Verizon purchase.

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