- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 25, 2018

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - Unions representing Consolidated Communications workers in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont have authorized a strike if negotiators fail to reach an agreement before their contract expires in less than two weeks, officials announced Wednesday.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Communications Workers of America are engaged in their first contact negotiations since a 2015 agreement was preceded by a 131-day strike against FairPoint Communications, which was purchased last year by Illinois-based Consolidated.

The unions expressed resolve as an agreement remained elusive even though the two sides have been in negotiations since April, union officials said Wednesday.

“If we have to, we’re ready to do it again,” Don Trementozzi, president of CWA Local 1400 and co-chairman of the bargaining team, said of the strike threat.

Ryan Whitlock, vice president of human resources at Consolidated said the company is negotiating in good faith as it seeks an agreement that helps the company efficiently serve telephone and broadband customers while benefiting workers and ensuring the company is sustainable and competitive.

The current contract expires Aug. 4 for more than 1,000 Consolidated workers who are represented by the two unions across northern New England.

The strike authorization votes occurred over the past 10 days as the unions’ bargaining committee traveled across the region to update members.

One of the sticking points is the outsourcing of work that would hurt workers and communities, said Peter McLaughlin, business manager of IBEW Local 2327 and co-chairman of the bargaining team.

The company contends it needs flexibility when it comes to hiring subcontractors to expedite repair, maintenance and installations, and that no workers will be laid off as a result.

While the company is hopeful about negotiations, it said it has contingency plans in place to avoid customer service problems in the event of a strike. During the last strike, there were widely documented reports of long telephone waits and delayed service calls.

The last strike began in October 2014 after North Carolina-based FairPoint froze pensions, imposed pay reductions on new workers, eliminated retiree health insurance and allowed the company to hire more outside workers. The agreement that ended the strike allowed employees to keep their defined benefit pension plans but there were concessions on company contributions, health care costs and other issues.

Consolidated ultimately bought FairPoint, doubling its fiber optic network and creating a company with operations in 24 states. The $1.3 billion transaction was completed last July.

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