PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Striking FairPoint workers gave their union negotiators a standing ovation Friday at the first briefings and ratification votes on a tentative agreement aimed at ending a four-month strike.
Workers chanted "One day longer, one day stronger!" and reacted positively as they received the first details of a contract that would last through August 2018. They said they were eager to return to work Wednesday.
"A lot of our members have been put to the end of their rope. Nineteen weeks is a long time to go without a paycheck," said Peter Keefe, a worker based in Lewiston.
FairPoint workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont went on strike in October after the company began imposing terms of its "final offer."
The tentative agreement, announced on Thursday, came about after federal mediators brought both sides together six weeks ago in Washington, D.C.
FairPoint's "final offer" froze workers' pensions and replaced them with a 401(k) plan, required workers to contribute to health care costs for the first time, and eliminated health care for current employees when they retire. It also allowed the company to hire outside workers.
Workers were told Friday that the tentative agreement called for FairPoint to retain a defined pension for current employees and that worker health care contributions would be lower than under the company's terms. Also, current workers would get a stipend of up to $800 a month for themselves and $400 for spouses for health insurance until age 65 after they retire.
There also would be limits on hiring of contract workers. Contractors would be hired only for specific projects within a set time frame, workers were told.
"We trust our leadership, and our leadership delivered," said Davie O'Brion, a FairPoint worker based in Portland. "They did a beautiful job."
The company, northern New England's primary landline provider, and union leaders declined to provide official details of the tentative agreement until all workers were briefed. Additional briefings and ratification votes were being held Saturday and Sunday.
Pete McLaughlin, chairman of the unions' bargaining committee from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said both sides are unhappy with parts of the proposal but he said the outcome was "fair." McLaughlin and negotiator Don Trementozzi from the Communications Workers of America received a standing ovation from workers in Portland.
Replacement workers were tasked with maintaining the network during the strike, and the replacement workers will be on the job for a few more weeks, workers were told.
Workers expressed concern about what they'll encounter. During the strike, service outages and restoration delays brought criticism from consumers and regulators alike.
FairPoint, which bills itself as the nation's sixth-largest telecom company, provides telephone and high speed Internet service in 17 states, but the lion's share is in the three northern New England states, where the company has about 1 million lines.
The North Carolina-based company has struggled since buying Verizon's landline holdings in the region for $2.3 billion in 2007. The company filed for bankruptcy and has continued to struggle since emerging from bankruptcy in 2011.
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