More than a week of closed-door meetings between FairPoint Communications and the unions representing about 1,800 of the company’s striking employees have yet to resolve a contract dispute responsible for a nearly three-month-old strike.

Representatives of the North Carolina-based company and unions declined Monday to comment on the status of the federal mediation, citing adherence to a requirement of the mediation process.

The company entered mediation Jan. 4 with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America at the request of the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. However, it’s not clear whether the parties have met in mediation each of those nine days.

“We can’t even comment on the details of the meeting,” Amy Cookson, a spokeswoman for the unions, said Monday afternoon. “All we can say is, while mediation continues, we have no comment.”

The IBEW and CWA represent about 1,800 FairPoint employees in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont who walked off the job at midnight on Oct. 16, claiming the company had failed to bargain in good faith. About 800 of those workers are in Maine.

Monday marked the 88th day of the strike.

Even though the parties have been in meetings with federal mediators for more than a week, that doesn’t guarantee they are making headway on an agreement that could end the strike, said Jeffrey Young, a labor lawyer at Johnson, Webbert and Young in Augusta. Young said the parties are not bound by federal law to reach an agreement once they enter mediation.

“No one has to agree to anything they don’t want to agree to,” said Young, the representative for some striking workers who are appealing a decision by the Maine Department of Labor not to provide them with unemployment benefits.

This is the second attempt by federal mediators to bring the months-long labor dispute to a conclusion. The first effort took place in Boston and failed on Nov. 18.

The fact this mediation process is taking place in Washington, D.C., as opposed to Boston, does suggest the parties are under more pressure to reach an agreement, Young said.

“That immediately says maybe there’s more pressure on the sides by government to resolve it,” he said. “I don’t know that for sure, but the fact they’re being summoned to Washington as opposed to using the mediator here” appears to suggest that.

The company and unions began negotiating new contracts in April, but the talks broke down in August over a disagreement on the extent of cuts to employee benefits.

The company has sought $700 million in concessions from the unions, mostly by freezing pensions, eliminating health coverage for retirees and asking employees to contribute roughly 20 percent to their health care costs. The unions offered to absorb $200 million in cuts, but no more. Neither side 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 the terms of its final contract offer.

Young said federal mediators don’t get involved every time there’s a strike around the country, but when the labor dispute is disruptive enough, they can request the parties to participate. And when that happens, “most parties would be hesitant to tell them ‘no,’ ” Young said.

 

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