Unions Eager to Dial Up Verizon Wireless Workers

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By Tyrone Richardson

June 8 — The recently proposed labor agreement for about 39,000 Verizon Communications Inc. wireline workers on the East Coast stands to boost chances to organize thousands of workers within the telecommunications giant's wireless business, union officials and university professors told Bloomberg BNA.

“This has to be a major step for organizing. The union is reaching a workplace it has wanted,” said Jeffrey Keefe, a professor emeritus at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “Wireless has been growing and Verizon is the largest wireless company in the country. That's where they make much of their money, and I'm sure the union will try to organize more.”

If ratified, the proposed deal would replace 27 expired collective bargaining agreements in nine Eastern states and the District of Columbia for between 36,000 and 39,000 workers represented by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (103 DLR AA-1, 5/27/16).

The proposal also includes a first labor contract for about 70 Verizon Wireless retail store workers in six stores in Brooklyn, N.Y., and one in Everett, Mass. The workers represent a tiny fraction of Verizon Wireless' overall national workforce, company spokesman Richard Young told Bloomberg BNA June 6.

Flexible scheduling, job security provisions and guaranteeing a certain amount of wages are some of the details in the proposed contract for the Verizon Wireless retail workers who voted for CWA representation in 2014 (94 DLR A-11, 5/15/14).

Before the recently proposed labor pact, the CWA and Verizon were slow to make progress on a first contract for the store workers. The lack of a contract also has been something of a hiccup in the CWA's overall effort to organize Verizon Wireless workers.

Company and Unions on Separate Lines

A ratified contract also would prove to be one of the union's first successes in a campaign that has had a lukewarm response from a company that lauds its largely union-free wireless business.

“We strongly believe Verizon Wireless remains the nation’s premier wireless provider because of the good work and dedication of our employees who have overwhelmingly chosen not to have union representation,” Young said in a written statement. “From our perspective, outside involvement is unnecessary and the success of this business unit and its workforce is indicative of that position.”

Verizon's wireline and wireless businesses operate separately. That means the Verizon Wireless arm employs its own workforce of retail associates, call center workers and technicians tasked with duties such as installing cell phone towers.

The CWA has been trying to diversify its reach beyond its large representation of wireline workers at Verizon Inc., which includes cable splicers and call center workers. Since at least 2000, the CWA and IBEW have been trying to organize Verizon Wireless employees (163 DLR AA-1, 8/22/00).

Union officials have said the company has historically resisted its efforts to grow a foothold in one of Verizon's most profitable and evolving business segments.

“Wireless is a big business, and we say the workers deserve to have a voice,” CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson told Bloomberg BNA June 1.

In addition to the 70 retail workers, the CWA represents about 50 technicians at a Verizon Wireless bargaining unit in New York, where workers have had a collective bargaining contract since the pre-Verizon days when it was NYNEX Mobile.

The IBEW does not represent Verizon Wireless workers, but the union is poised to make new connections, adding to its representation of technicians and call center workers at Verizon's wireline business.

“When an employee realizes that they may have a voice in their working conditions, wages and benefits they feel empowered to discuss the options,” Carmella L Thomas, IBEW's director of professional and industrial organizing, wrote in an e-mail. “Being fearful when others in their field have accomplished those efforts makes them feel confident that they could possibly achieve the same.”

Union's Spotty Reception in Wireless Industry

As for the CWA, Verizon Wireless is just part of the union's effort to organize the nation's wireless workforce.

The union also has been trying to organize workers at T-Mobile USA Inc. since at least 2008, an effort that has faced stiff resistance from the U.S. subsidiary of German wireless company Deutsche Telekom (222 DLR A-6, 11/20/09). The union's only foothold in the T-Mobile network came with representation of workers in a Harlem, N.Y., retail store for subsidiary Metro PCS.

Companies have largely resisted organizing wireless workers, to keep operation costs low and remain competitive with other nonunion operations, according to Jeff Kagan, an independent telecom industry analyst.

“To keep costs in line with competitors,” all companies “should either be unionized or non-unionized,” he said. “The reason is union shops would more than likely cost more to the customer. This makes the union shop less competitive as they compete with lower cost companies.”

The organizing campaign also follows some high-profile work stoppages and other labor battles within the telecom industry. Such history, which includes the six-week work stoppage by East Coast workers, could fuel the company's push against organizing Verizon Wireless, according to Rosemary Batt, a labor professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“The NYNEX strike in 1989 was particularly bitter, and, largely based on that legacy, Verizon leaders have taken a strong position that they are not going to let the union move into the new wireless organization, knowing that in time the union would decline as the wireline market recedes, and that has happened,” she said.

As for Verizon, Rutger's Keefe said organizing the company's wireless workers has faced several obstacles. That includes difficulty getting the attention of the wireless workers, who are spread out geographically and separated from workers in the company's wireline business.

Failure to Connect to Workers

“It's harder when you have a Verizon Wireless store in a mall or a shopping center, which means it's harder to have access to the employees,” Keefe said. “That's different from places like Brooklyn where they can walk up to the storefront on the street and talk to the employees and picket in front of the store. Once you get into the suburbs of America, you have mostly stores located in malls and such, and it's tougher to have a presence to talk with the non-union workers.”

Keefe added that such access restrictions have helped the company maintain a union-free workplace.

“That makes it easier for management to claim that they should not join the union,” he said. “Management will give them all the advantages of a union without any dues or fear of a strike. This is all standard stuff that management has been successful doing for the last 40 years.”

Some of the hardships are partly because of difficulties of organizing a retail workforce, which is prone to worker turnover and changing demographics since the last economic recession, Batt said.

Retail jobs are increasingly being filled by people who are reluctant to chance losing their jobs as a result of an organizing drive, Batt said. It's very hard, she added, “when they know they will be up against tremendous opposition by the company and risk losing their jobs.”

Slow to Dial Up Wireless Workers

The union footprint is a contrast to one of Verizon Wireless's largest competitors, AT&T Mobility, which has about 40,000 workers represented by the CWA.

The AT&T Inc. subsidiary agreed to a neutrality and card-check organizing campaign in 2004 (37 DLR A-7, 2/25/13). A card-check agreement allows workers to choose union representation by signing union authorization cards instead of through the long process for a secret-ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.

The CWA-IBEW had a similar agreement with Verizon Wireless, which the company declined to renew when the pact expired in 2004 (163 DLR A-12, 8/24/04). The unions did not organize any new units under the agreement, which was reached in 2000 as part of a contract settlement between CWA and Verizon.

Former CWA President Larry Cohen told Bloomberg BNA in May 2014 that the efforts failed because of “the company's relentless anti-union behavior, even including firing union supporters during organizing drives.”

CWA spokeswoman Johnson echoed that view in an interview with Bloomberg BNA June 1, saying the company has continued to rebuff organizing efforts within its wireless business. She said “progress” on a first contract for the 70 retail workers came on “the final day” of negotiations.

“These talks didn't come until late into the process and they initially didn't want to discuss anything regarding the wireless workers,” Johnson said.

The proposed contract is applauded by CWA-represented Verizon Wireless workers such as Mike Tisei, who has worked at the Everett store for about five years. He said guaranteed pay provisions and the chance to organize more retail workers are some of his bright spots in the contract.

“What's nice about the contract is that it offers something for leverage to extend into other stores,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

First Contract ‘More Than the Usual.'

The proposed contract includes some unusually strong concessions that favor the retail workers, which shrinks emphasis on commission-based pay rates, Batt said.

“Within a first contract like this, the union was able to identify some issues that were important to the workers,” she said. “That includes the use of contractors and also limits on performance-based pay.”

Other details in the proposed Verizon Wireless labor contract include:

  •  Job Security—Workers at CWA-represented stores cannot be arbitrarily fired or disciplined. “At-will” status no longer applies.
  •  Limiting Contractors—The company may not use contractors in Brooklyn or Everett if they lead to layoffs, part-timing of jobs or downgrading of jobs.
  •  Removing At-Risk Pay—Under this agreement, $2,000 of “performance” pay in the Brooklyn and Everett stores will be guaranteed and no longer at risk.
  •  Flexible Scheduling—Qualified workers in like titles will have the right to swap schedules.
  •  Transfers—If the company needs to transfer a worker outside of the Brooklyn or Everett bargaining unit, the worker will still be covered under the terms and conditions of this agreement.


Batt said one of the largest gains in the contract includes the guaranteed payment, which moves away from the industry standard commission-based payments.

“To get some of performance-based pay shifted to a guaranteed pay means they have their foot in the door to shift away from at-risk pay over time, which is really not appropriate for low-wage workers,” she said.

Despite such gains, Verizon spokesman Young said the contract will have minimal impact on the company's wireless business model.

“These new agreements preserve the Company’s rights to exercise broad discretion on how we treat employees and run the business,” Young said in the written statement. “As a result of these new agreements, we believe very little will change.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyrone Richardson in Washington at trichardson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

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