Negotiators are working against a midnight Saturday deadline that could lead to the second major strike in less than four years against northern New England’s biggest landline phone company.

Striking FairPoint workers picket at the corner of Davis Farm Road and Riverside Street in Portland in October 2014. FairPoint’s successor, Consolidated Communications, and the phone workers’ union are now trying to reach a new contract agreement by midnight Saturday.

The unions representing Consolidated Communications workers last month authorized a strike if a deal on a new contract isn’t reached before the current pact expires Saturday. Consolidated is the communications company that bought FairPoint last year.

Negotiations seemed to have broken down over the company’s demand for changes to allow it to hire more independent contractors to make repairs, maintain the system or install equipment for customers.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America together represent more than 1,000 Consolidated workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, with about 500 workers here in Maine. The Illinois-based company provides landline and broadband services.

Consolidated last year completed its purchase of FairPoint, which had operated the system in the three states since it purchased the lines from Verizon a decade earlier. At the time, the sale to Consolidated was announced, unions said they viewed the deal with “cautious optimism.

FairPoint’s employees engaged in a four-month-long strike that began in 2014 after the North Carolina-based company sought to freeze pensions, impose pay reductions on new workers, eliminate retiree health insurance and proposed rules changes that would allow the company to hire more outside workers. The strike was settled in early 2015 under a deal that allowed workers to keep their defined-benefit pension plans, but the unions made concessions on company contributions to that plan, health care costs and other issues.

The current contract largely restricts outsourcing for storm recovery efforts and requires the company to use the existing workforce and pay overtime for crews before it can turn to outsourcing. Consolidated wants “greater flexibility” over outsourcing, but says no IBEW workers would be laid off as a result, Ryan Whitlock, the company’s vice president of human resources said in a statement Friday morning.

The company is continuing to negotiate, Whitlock said, but has “hundreds” of management employees trained to step in if workers go on strike, he said.

“The contingency plan is ready to be implemented immediately to ensure that our customers do not experience interruptions to their service,” Whitlock said.

But Peter McLaughlin, business manager for the IBEW local in Maine, was upbeat about the state of the talks.

“We’re light years ahead of where we were at our last set of negotiations,” with FairPoint, he said.

Outsourcing remains the main issue in the talks, he said Friday afternoon. But he said the two sides are also dealing with a company proposal to transfer some work beyond Consolidated’s New England area, along with continued discussions over employee benefits, he said.

Still, “I think if we continue to talk, we will come to an agreement,” McLaughlin said.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

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