CWA, IBEW Begin Strike at Verizon Over Contracts Affecting 45,000 Workers

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The Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Aug. 7 began a strike against Verizon Communications Inc. affecting more than 45,000 wireline workers in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic when the parties were unable to reach agreement before their labor contracts expired, the union and company announced.

The unions set up picket lines Aug. 8 at more than 100 Verizon sites from Massachusetts to Virginia protesting the nearly 100 company proposals for concessions, which the unions said would “roll back half a century of advances” and which remained on the table when labor contracts with the telecommunications company expired at midnight Aug. 6.

The affected workers maintain and repair traditional telephone lines and install FiOS. They also include telephone and repair technicians, customer service representatives, and operators.

In collective bargaining that began June 22, Verizon has proposed that any wage increases be based on yearly evaluations, that defined benefit pensions be frozen, that employees begin for the first time to contribute to health care premiums, that all job security provisions be eliminated, and that paid sick leave and holidays be reduced.

Verizon said Aug. 7 in a statement that it has activated its contingency plan “to ensure customers experience limited disruption in service” during the strike. The company has trained “tens of thousands of management employees, retirees, and others to fill the roles and responsibilities of its union-represented wireline workers.”

The company Aug. 8 reported it has experienced 12 acts of sabotage to its communications facilities in four states. The company is working with authorities to investigate and has offered a reward of up to $50,000 for information from witnesses.

Unions, Company Still Talking.

The company pledged “to do our part to reach a new contract that reflects today's economic realities in our wireline business and addresses the needs of all parties.”

Although Verizon cancelled three scheduled bargaining sessions over the weekend, the parties resumed collective bargaining Aug. 8, a company spokesman told BNA. But CWA said that in six weeks of negotiations, there has been no real bargaining by Verizon management.

“If Verizon had shown any good faith effort to negotiate honestly, our members would still be on the job,” IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill said. “Instead, they turned their backs on any attempts to reach a reasonable settlement. We cannot stand by while one of the richest, most successful corporations in the world joins the race to decimate the middle class of this country. We remain ready to meet with Verizon to work out a fair agreement, but at this point, we had no choice.”

The unions claim that Verizon is aiming to destroy middle class jobs at the company with its refusal to “back off its $1 billion demand for concessions.”

“CWA and IBEW members are prepared to return to work when management demonstrates the willingness to begin bargaining seriously for a fair agreement. If not, CWA and IBEW members and allies will continue the fight,” CWA said Aug. 8 in a statement.

Declining Workforce, Declining Part of Business.

CWA represents about 35,000 workers and IBEW represents more than 10,000 workers in Verizon's wireline business, a part of the company with declining business compared with its booming wireless business.

The number of union-represented workers at Verizon has dropped from 65,000 when the parties last negotiated contracts in 2008, as the result of buyouts, attrition, contracting out, job elimination, technological change, and the sale of Verizon operations in four states. Verizon's 138,000 other employees are not represented by a union.

“As more consumers take advantage of changing technologies and competitive offerings, Verizon's wireline business (the part of Verizon where these employees work) has declined in recent years,” a Verizon spokesman said July 28. “As a business we must make meaningful changes to our cost structure so that we can remain competitive and continue to provide solid middle-class jobs in our communities.”

Verizon has asserted that its contract proposal will continue to keep compensation and benefits highly competitive with those at comparable companies.

Parties' Mobilization, Contingency Plans Started Early.

Members of CWA in districts 1 (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey), 2, and 13 (Maryland, Virginia, District of Columbia) and IBEW completed a strike authorization vote in July, with broad majorities of voting members giving approval to union leaders to call a strike against Verizon if necessary.

Union members received mobilization training for months to build support for a contract. The training included strike preparation, and members were prepared with picket schedules one week before contract expiration.

CWA and IBEW members conducted a major rally July 30 outside Verizon headquarters in New York City attended by some 20,000 union supporters, according to CWA.

“Verizon executives are trying to take money from working people while paying themselves more than ever,” Chris Shelton, vice president of CWA District 1, which covers New York, New Jersey and New England, said Aug. 7 in a statement. “Verizon's CEO was paid $81 million over four years, almost three hundred times what an average employee makes, but they are still trying to destroy the American dream for middle class workers. We won't stand for it.”

Unions Have Leverage, Professor Says.

Noting that Verizon is one of two mammoth companies, with AT&T Inc., supplying U.S. telecommunications services, Harry Katz, professor of collective bargaining and dean of the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University, said the company is profitable, but asking for “draconian cuts” from its workers who are deeply suspicious about company needs. Verizon is far from experiencing the competitive challenges faced by U.S. automakers and textile firms, for example, he said.

The unions also have leverage because the thousands of union-represented Verizon technicians have cannot be replaced easily, Katz said.

He predicted, nevertheless, that CWA and IBEW will have to make some concessions because their numbers are shrinking as Verizon has reclassified work outside the bargaining unit and the company's need for wireless engineers grows in comparison to its need for wireline technicians.

Verizon technicians earn as much as $81,000 annually including overtime in Washington, D.C., and $91,000 including overtime in New York, with a $43,000 to $50,000 benefit package, respectively, according to company spokesman Richard Young.

By Susan R. Hobbs