Strikers say company making them a scapegoat for less capable temporary workers

FairPoint Communications claimed Tuesday that its telecommunications network has been the victim of an “unacceptable and potentially dangerous” spike in vandalism since its employees in northern New England, including roughly 800 in Maine, went on strike more than a week ago.

The company has investigated eight incidents of vandalism — including one in Maine — to its telecommunications infrastructure and facilities since the strike began nine days ago, according to FairPoint spokeswoman Angelynne Beaudry. In the five years prior to the strike, the company investigated one case of vandalism, not including prior cases of copper theft.

“We’re extremely upset and concerned,” Mike Reed, FairPoint’s president in Maine, said Tuesday. “We have to worry about our customers and the integrity of our network. Our economy is riding on that network. Our customers’ ability to reach emergency services is riding on that network. … We’re not accusing anyone, but we as a state can’t have that happen.”

The company is offering a $5,000 reward to anyone who provides information “leading to the arrest and conviction of any unauthorized persons tampering with, damaging or destroying its network or equipment,” which, besides serving customers, also carries Maine’s 911 calls, according to the statement. The company did not blame the unions and striking workers directly for the alleged acts of vandalism, but it did ask them for help in preventing future vandalism.

“Most of the strikers are exercising their legal right to stop working and to publicize their position, but it is no coincidence that these acts of vandalism are being committed during the strike,” Beaudry said in the statement. “It is not enough for strikers to deny that they are vandals. We understand that the vast majority would never vandalize. But it is time to help us stop the vandalism.”

When pressed for details on the alleged vandalism, Beaudry said the company logged one case of tampering in Maine. The incident took place at the U.S. Post Office in Newport. A temporary technician hired to replace a striking worker arrived to discover that some service wires in what’s called a “cross box” had been moved from active terminals to inactive terminals.

“This is a highly unusual incident and has not happened before,” Beaudry said. “Again, you have to know what you are doing to do this act.”

It was not clear whether the company filed a report with the Newport Police Department. Calls to Newport police to corroborate the company’s claim were not returned on Tuesday afternoon.

The unions fired back, calling the company’s claims of vandalism “bogus” and a ploy to distract the public from the fact the company has not been able to maintain its customer service with its temporary workforce during the strike.

“It’s bogus,” Peter McLaughlin, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local chapter in Augusta and one of the lead negotiators for the unions, said Tuesday afternoon. “We’re an easy target to lay blame on. Their systems don’t work well and the people they hired to take our place are woefully inadequate. They’re falling way behind on job load, they just can’t get it done, and they’re trying to deflect anything they can on us.”

McLaughlin said he knows of at least one case of so-called vandalism in New Hampshire that was, in fact, the result of a temporary contract worker leaving a cross box open and exposed to the rain, which damaged the box’s components.

Nearly 2,000 FairPoint employees in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire who belong to two unions, the IBEW and the Communications Workers of America, went on strike at midnight on Oct. 16 about an impasse in labor contract negotiations with the company.

The company has asked for $700 million in concessions, mostly by freezing pensions, eliminating health coverage for retirees and asking employees to contribute to health care premiums. In late August, the company claimed the parties had reached an impasse, a technical term in labor law that allows the company to impose its final proposal on the unions.

The unions have offered roughly $200 million in concessions, but says FairPoint has refused to negotiate. Since the beginning of August, the unions have filed six complaints with the National Labor Relations Board alleging the company has used unfair labor practices, of which two initially were rejected and are now under appeal. The other four, of which two are identical, are still pending.

McLaughlin said the unions would not tolerate any acts of vandalism by its members.

“We live and work in these communities,” he said. “It’s our families and friends that we’re affecting with this, so we are not condoning any sabotage.”

He called on the company to release details about the alleged vandalism so that if there are legitimate cases by striking union members, they could be dealt with appropriately. If a striking union member is caught vandalizing company property, McLaughlin said, it would reflect poorly on the unions and make them “look like thugs,” which he said would be unfortunate.

“Nobody should be stupid enough to do anything like that,” he said. “If someone is caught doing that, they’re putting themselves in a very bad position that we’re not going to support.”

FairPoint’s Beaudry said the company is working closely with local law enforcement to monitor its network and track down the vandals.

The reports of vandalism come a week after the company accused union members of harassing contract workers the company has hired during the strike and other activities that interrupt service, and “union sympathizers” of launching a phone jamming campaign against the company’s call centers.

The unions denied any wrongdoing in those instances as well.

“We are peacefully protesting to keep good middle-class jobs in Maine,” said Jenn Nappi, assistant business manager of IBEW local 2327 in Augusta.

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