PORTLAND, Maine - Northern New England's primary landline provider, FairPoint Communications, and two unions representing more than 1,700 workers have reached a tentative agreement to end a four-month strike, officials announced Thursday.
A joint statement from the company and unions didn't provide any details of the proposal that will be put to workers for ratification votes starting Friday. Voting will take place following briefings held through the weekend, and workers will return to their jobs on Wednesday, union officials said.
"The new labour agreements will provide employees with wages and benefits that are among the best in northern New England. At the same time, the agreements permit the company to achieve a much more competitive position in the marketplace," the statement said.
FairPoint workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont went on strike in October.
The tentative agreement follows more than six weeks of federally mediated negotiations.
Mike Spillane, a business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Burlington, Vermont, said negotiators found middle ground on pensions, health care and contract work without sacrificing the unions' core principles.
"There are things that you like and things that you need. We got what we needed," he said. "We'll put it out to members. They'll be pleased with some of the things in there."
Workers greeted the announcement with enthusiasm.
"Nobody expected it to go on this long. It's unfortunate that it had to go on this long," said Matt Polo, a line worker based in Bangor, Maine. "I'm anxious to hear the details, and I'm anxious to get back to work."
Added Steve Soule, who works out of Manchester, New Hampshire: "There is a feeling of great pride in the resolve of our membership."
On Thursday, pickets were gone from FairPoint's state headquarters in Maine. The Falmouth Police Department was told officers were no longer needed as of Friday. Meanwhile, the Portland Police Department was told to scale back to a single officer outside the building.
Leading up to the announcement, there was a big gulf between the two parties.
The previous contract included lucrative provisions that dated to the days when Verizon was the owner, and FairPoint said the new contract needed to bring worker benefits in line with changes in the industry.
Negotiators from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America knew concessions were necessary but contended the company was asking for too much too fast.
FairPoint Communications Inc., based in Charlotte, North Carolina, wanted to require workers to contribute to health care costs for the first time, freeze and replace the old pension, eliminate retiree health care benefits for current workers, and have the ability to hire outside contractors.
Pete McLaughlin, chairman of the unions' bargaining committee, said a gag order imposed by mediators allowed both sides to speak freely and to make progress toward a "fair" deal. "We achieved our objective in protecting good-paying jobs with good benefits in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont," he said.
The stakes were high for both the company and workers. During the 17-week strike, service outages and restoration delays brought criticism from consumers and regulators alike. New Hampshire temporarily held up a $13 million contract amid complaints.
FairPoint, which bills itself as the nation's sixth-largest telecom company, provides 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 company has struggled since buying Verizon's landline holdings to the region for $2.3 billion in 2007. Eighteen months after the deal closed, it filed for bankruptcy after losing customers because of operational and integration problems. It has continued to struggle since emerging from bankruptcy in 2011.
Associated Press reporter Patrick Whittle in Portland contributed to this report.
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