FairPoint Communications and the unions representing nearly 2,000 striking telecommunications workers in northern New England will return to the negotiating table over the weekend at the request of federal mediators.

The meeting will take place at 1 p.m. Sunday at the offices of the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Washington, D.C. It will be the second meeting of company and union representatives since the workers went on strike Oct. 17. A previous effort by federal mediators failed on Nov. 18.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America represent roughly 1,800 FairPoint employees in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, about 800 of them in Maine. The company and unions began negotiating new contracts in April, but those talks broke down in August over cuts to employee benefits.

The company is seeking $700 million in concessions, mostly by freezing pensions, eliminating health coverage for retirees and asking employees to contribute roughly 20 percent to their health care costs. The unions have offered to absorb $200 million in cuts. Neither side has budged, leading FairPoint to declare in late August that the parties had reached an “impasse,” a technical term in labor law that allows the company to impose its final contract offer. The unions declared the strike a month and a half later and Friday marked its 78th day.

Sunday’s meeting will substantially differ from the previous mediation effort in Boston, according to Peter McLaughlin, business manager of IBEW Local 2327 in Augusta and chair of the unions’ bargaining committee.

“Whereas in the first round they had invited us in and were hopeful we’d have some dialogue on our own, in this particular case they’re injecting themselves into the process to try to jump-start negotiations,” McLaughlin said. “They tried to do that before, but it wasn’t as formal as this. We’re getting called to the big-boy chairs down in Washington now.”

The latest mediation request came straight from Allison Beck, acting director of the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Angelynne Beaudry, a spokeswoman for FairPoint, didn’t agree with McLaughlin’s portrayal of the new mediation effort.

“The (federal mediators) requested this meeting as part of the normal process,” she said. “We’re not interpreting it in any other way.”

Whether Sunday’s mediated negotiation will yield any results is unclear. The unions’ position hasn’t changed, McLaughlin said. Neither has the company’s, Beaudry said. Both said their respective parties are ready to negotiate, but are waiting for the other party to offer counter-proposals.

“The ball is in the unions’ court,” Beaudry said. “We hope that the unions are prepared to make comprehensive and meaningful counter-proposals.”

McLaughlin: “We have always been ready to negotiate, but we do not want to negotiate with ourselves. Regardless of what you hear in the company press releases, they haven’t given us anything since the $700 million offer. That was their first demand and that’s what they’re at right now.”

Beaudry believes the company’s position was strengthened Monday when the National Labor Relations Board dismissed charges made by the unions that FairPoint broke the law in August when it declared an impasse and imposed its final contract offer on the unions. The unions plan to appeal that NLRB ruling.

McLaughlin doesn’t believe Beck’s request for mediation has anything to do with the NLRB’s recent decision. He also said the action does not weaken the unions’ negotiating position.

“We’re going into it the same way we have been all along,” he said. “Our negotiating strategy hasn’t changed because of that ruling. What the company does, I’m not sure. You have to get that from them.”

Despite the NLRB ruling, McLaughlin said morale among union members remains high.

“Of course, everybody would have liked it to come down in our favor, but then the company would have appealed it and we’d be in same boat anyway,” he said.

The unions Wednesday announced three meetings will be held around the state next week. McLaughlin said they were normal monthly informational meetings, and that nothing should be read into them.

Whit Richardson can be contacteded at 791-6463 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: whit_richardson

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