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IBEW Leaders, Golden & Pingree Blast Consolidated Communications for Layoffs & Subcontracting

Andy O’Brien
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IBEW leaders, Congressman Jared Golden and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree are calling on broadband and telecom provider Consolidated Communications (CCI) to cancel another round of proposed layoffs and cease rampant subcontracting on the build out of its high-speed fiber network. Recently, Consolidated Communications announced it plans to lay off twelve customer service representatives in Maine on March 8.

In a letter on Thursday, Congressman Jared Golden and Congressman Jared Golden urged Consolidated President and CEO Robert Udell Jr. "in the strongest possible terms" to reverse its decision on the layoffs.

"It is troubling that the proposed layoffs continue a trend of CCI to eliminate and transfer jobs based in Maine," wrote Golden and Pingree. "It is our understanding that the IBEW-represented workforce alone at CCI has declined 32 percent in Maine since the company assumed operations from Fairpoint Communications in 2017. The continued depletion of our local telecommunications workforce not only harms your customers, but it also hurts the Mainers that depend on these jobs."

Currently, IBEW 2327, which represents telecom workers in Maine, is working on negotiating around the layoffs. There were once over 150 Service Representatives in Maine, but now there are only 53 left. IBEW leaders strongly dispute the company’s contention that the layoffs are necessary, noting that the reps are so busy that they have to come in on weekends to work overtime training their replacements.

Consolidated already eliminated sixty union jobs in Maine last fall due to “budgetary reasons,” despite receiving hundreds of millions of federal dollars fiber network improvements. The company has received historic federal investments to improve and expand broadband in rural Maine through the COVID relief money and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Since 2021, Consolidated Communications’ broadband brand Fidium alone has received $733 million in federal funding to upgrade and expand its fiber network and it may be eligible for hundreds of millions more from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program.

In an incendiary letter to Consolidated CEO C. Robert Udell Jr. and Searchlight partner Timothy Austin last week, IBEW Second District Vice President Michael Monahan called the company “perhaps the worst employer” his members work for in terms of how it treats its employees.

“What is incredulous about Consolidated Communications and their business strategy is that they eliminate jobs and careers at the same time that they have been feeding at the trough with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funding via various subsidies and grants awarded to Consolidated for broadband deployment,” wrote Monahan. “Consolidated predominantly utilizes contractors to build and install the ‘Fidium Fiber’ broadband network instead of their qualified workers, our IBEW members, who are also Maine residents.

A Pending Sale to Searchlight

In January, Consolidated Communicates shareholders approved the proposed acquisition of the Company by affiliates of Searchlight Capital Partners, L.P. (“Searchlight”) and British Columbia Investment Management Corporation. Currently, regulators in 20 states, including Maine, are holding hearings on the pending sale. The Maine Public Utility Commission is expected to wrap deliberations on the sale in April or May. IBEW has not yet taken a position on the transfer of the company to Searchlight.

In his letter, Monahan argued that companies like Consolidated that receive these lucrative broadband grants are supposed to use the money to create a skilled, competitive, and diverse workforce so that the overall community continues to benefit from the investments in the long term. Instead, much of this federal funding is being squandered as the company cuts corners, outsources jobs and subcontracts work to cheaper out-of-state independent contractors to avoid paying good wages and benefits to workers here in our communities.

“To the best of my knowledge, the Maine Connect Authority with their ambitious goals set forth with the Maine Community College System to develop a targeted broadband training program to train and put Mainers to work has not yielded any commitments from Consolidated to hire one Maine resident, simply because Consolidated seeks to eliminate jobs in Maine,” Monahan continued.

President Biden and his administration have made it very clear that union workers have the knowledge and expertise to support this build out and that they should have strong voice in how this taxpayer money is invested. As the Biden administration noted in a 2021 fact sheet on his American Jobs Plan, infrastructure money, including funding for broadband expansion, is meant to create "good-quality jobs that pay prevailing wages in safe and healthy workplaces” and that allow workers to have a “free and fair choice to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively with their employers.”

“By ensuring that American taxpayers’ dollars benefit working families and their communities,” the White House stated. “These are investments that leading economists agree will give Americans good jobs now and will pay off for future generations by leaving the country more competitive and our communities stronger.”

IBEW Second District Representative Ed Starr said that the problem is that there wasn’t stronger labor language in federal broadband policies, so broadband companies are using these cheap non-union contractors.

“Those aren’t real careers,” said Starr. “They depress wages and benefits for all the workers when you’re using these non-union outfits.”

Since Consolidated Communications took over operations from FairPoint Communications in 2017, the IBEW-represented workforce in Maine has shrunk from 550 members to just 374 today – a loss of 176 Consolidated employees, or 32 percent of the IBEW unionized workforce, in Maine alone. Prior to that, Fairpoint slashed the number of IBEW workers from 906 to 550 workers. Overall all the two companies gutted the New England workforce by over 62 percent.

IBEW is also calling on Consolidated to address the problem of lead exposure due to its continued use of lead sheathed copper cables that were installed in the 19th and 20th centuries.