After four months on strike, some 1,700 union workers at FairPoint Communications will finally return to work on Wednesday. FairPoint workers ratified a new contract over the weekend after long negotiations and sniping between unions and the company.
About two months ago, VPR spoke with Derek Whitney, a union FairPoint worker, to see how he and his family were coping with the financial and emotional challenges of life on strike. As Whitney prepared to head back to work, he shared his thoughts once more.
“I definitely am excited to go back to work,” Whitney says. “As you know, we were anticipating this for a long time, but I also look at it like I am now a changed person forever. I will never forget, you know, the feeling that I just went through.”
The Whitney family faced some money problems when the strike was underway, and Derek Whitney was forced to sell his truck. Whitney, who had worked for 18 years in a “fairly stable environment,” says the experience left a mark.
“Emotionally, it really did change me,” he says. “I really know what it’s like to lose sleep. I would wake up at night and really worry. So, the stress was unbelievable. And now I know that things are going to change in the future for me. I’m going to spend every minute I can getting ready, not just for strike, but for change in my life with a company. Because these things can happen.”
Whitney’s son and daughter had been frustrated with the strain the strike was putting on the family. But ultimately, Whitney says the strike brought them together.
“My family and I are now a lot closer. I will say that. You know, I worked so much before this. And I missed out on some of their growing up,” Whitney says.
Whitney says he hopes the experience shaped his children’s understanding of the importance of higher education.
“There were times when my son would ask me questions about what we were going to do next. And I remember telling him that I really wanted him to go to college, and, you know, my daughter too – how important it is to be an asset for a company,” he says. “And to make yourself invaluable, really so that you can get a good job. And how important it is in life – hopefully they’ll take that with them.”
Under the new contract, Whitney and other FairPoint workers will be able to keep their pension plans, but the plans will be scaled back; they’ll also get pay raises. FairPoint will also be allowed to use some non-union workers in certain situations. Despite these sticking points, Whitney says he did vote in favor of the contract.
“The truth is, it’s better than what they were going to push, or impose, on us. And it shows that there was some negotiation,” Whitney says. “This wasn’t about money, for me especially. I’m not speaking for the union, but for myself, the biggest thing was job security. I did not want to accept what they were pushing on us. And that’s why I went out on strike more than anything. Right now what we have is better than what we were going to get, and I think it’s good for my family, and it really is time to get back to work and look for some of the good things out of this.”
During the strike, both sides used some tough rhetoric.
“There are parts of me that – I guess I could never forgive a company for putting people through this,” Whitney says. “But they’ve shown … that they can negotiate, and they’ve shown that they need us. And I’ve always loved the job, so I’m excited to go back to work and go back to the way my life was.”
And knowing the strain that it would cause on him and his family, financially and emotionally, Whitney says he would strike again.
“I know that I was sticking up for the working class and my friends and families out there that our company was – to me, they were trying to hurt us,” he says. “They were trying to break a union, and they wouldn’t stop. Next time, if it were ever to happen again, I won’t cross the picket line, but I won’t sit idle. There’s other companies I can work for. If it’s time to start work in a new field, I will. Like I said before, I never understood how hard this was until I lived through it. “