PORTLAND, Maine — Frustrated over a negotiating stalemate, more than 1,700 FairPoint Communications workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont went on strike Friday, with picket-wielding employees demanding that the telecommunications company return to the bargaining table.
A FairPoint spokeswoman insisted the company is willing to listen if the unions provide a proposal that "meaningfully addresses the core issues."
But striking workers who staff call centers and maintain the region's telephone network said they deserved better after helping the company negotiate a rocky transition when FairPoint purchased Verizon's land-based assets and FairPoint went through bankruptcy.
"When they bought Verizon, we bailed them out of that fiasco and disaster, and we bailed them out of bankruptcy. This is a complete slap in the face," said Serina DeWolfe, a Communication Workers of America official who joined pickets in Portland.
Workers represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communication Workers of America authorized a strike months ago, before FairPoint declared an impasse in late August and imposed a contract that froze pensions this week.
The strike was declared Thursday night after union representatives unsuccessfully tried to re-engage the company in negotiations at a meeting in Boston.
As word of the strike spread, FairPoint sought Friday to assure telephone and high-speed Internet customers Friday that it has plans in place to ensure there are no service interruptions across the three states.
FairPoint spokeswoman Angelynne Amores Beaudry also said the company hasn't closed the door on further negotiations.
"While we have implemented our final proposals, we have always remained willing to negotiate and have committed to evaluate and respond to any counterproposal from the unions that meaningfully addresses the core issues of these negotiations," she said.
Across the three states, workers became enraged as the company implemented a contract requiring workers to contribute to health insurance for the first time and freezing pensions for workers, 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.
"FairPoint is trying to roll back 40 years of collective bargaining in one swoop," said Keith Pepin, of Middlesex, Vermont, an 18-year veteran. "We realize we're going to have to take concessions. We're not against that, but you don't take it all in one day."
Union officials accused the company of trying to slash costs to make it attractive to prospective buyers and to provide promised dividends to shareholders.
"This company is owned by basically 10 Wall Street companies who picked up the debt for pennies on the dollar when FairPoint went bankrupt," said Glenn Brackett, business manager of IBEW Local 2320 in New Hampshire. "They don't give a damn what happens up here so long as they make their money."
Accusing the company of failing to bargain in good faith, workers have asked the National Labor Relations Board to order the company back to the negotiating table.
FairPoint, which bills itself as the nation's sixth-largest telecom, provides telephone service and high-speed Internet access to 17 states. The lion's share of its business is in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, where it has about 1 million lines.
The North Carolina-based company bought Verizon's landline holdings in northern New England for $2.3 billion in 2007 and then filed for bankruptcy 18 months later after losing customers because of operational and integration problems. FairPoint has continued to struggle since emerging from bankruptcy in 2011.
Associated Press writer Rik Stevens in Concord, New Hampshire, and Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vermont, contributed to this report. Follow David Sharp on Twitter at https://twitter.com/David_Sharp_AP