January 24, 2021

Facing Call for Concessions, Verizon Workers Vote to Authorize Strike

But the union leaders are resisting any suggestion of givebacks, saying the overall company is making plenty of money. The company earned $6.9 billion in net income for the first six months of this year, amid strong growth in its majority-owned Verizon Wireless cellphone operation. And Verizon’s hefty investment in its FiOS TV and Internet services is starting to pay off.

The battle lines between the sides were drawn more sharply on Thursday, when the Communication Workers of America announced that in balloting by 35,000 of its members at Verizon, 91 percent had authorized their leaders to call a strike as soon as Aug. 7, after the contract expires.

Verizon officials were quick to note that such a vote did not necessarily mean a strike would occur. Such votes are routine in contentious contract discussions, and negotiators usually reach a settlement before the strike deadline.

However, Verizon and union officials agree that the company’s demands are far more sweeping than in previous years. Verizon says it is pushing hard for flexibility and to hold down costs because its wireline business — which, unlike its wireless operation, is heavily unionized — faces such intense competition, much of it nonunion.

“We’re looking to make meaningful changes in the contract, which reflect the state of the wireline business as well as the economy,” said Lawrence Marcus, Verizon’s senior vice president for labor relations. “The wireline business is basically fighting to reverse a 10-year decline in our profitability.”

Verizon is pressing its unionized workers to begin contributing to their health care premiums, proposing that workers pay $1,300 to $3,000 for family coverage, depending on the plan. The company says the contributions are similar to those made by its 135,000 nonunion employees.

Verizon also wants to make it easier to lay off workers without having to buy them out and wants to tie raises more closely to job performance, denying annual raises to subpar performers.

The company also has called for freezing pensions for current employees and eliminating traditional pensions for future workers, while making its 401(k) plans somewhat more generous for both groups. It would also like to limit sick days to five a year, as opposed to the current policy, which company officials say sets no limit.

“Verizon has put on the table the most aggressive set of contract demands we’ve ever seen,” said Robert Master, a spokesman for the communications workers. “From our perspective, this hugely profitable company that made $20 billion over the last four years, despite the worst economy in 75 years, seems determined to turn tens of thousands of secure middle-class jobs into lower-wage, much less secure jobs.”

The union has sought to put Verizon on the defensive, repeatedly highlighting that its top five executives received a total of $258 million, including stock options, over the last four years. The union is planning a big protest Saturday outside Verizon’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan.

“I’m not a financial wizard, but if you can afford to pay a C.E.O. millions a year, then how can you ask workers to slash their benefits?” said Paula M. Vinciguerra, president of the communications’ workers’ local on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “I was raised with the idea of shared sacrifice.”

Verizon said many field technicians earned $95,000 a year, including overtime, with an additional $50,000 in benefits. But union officials said the field technicians and call center workers generally earned $29 to $37 an hour, translating to $60,000 to $77,000 for a full-time worker, with benefits worth an additional $25,000 a year.

The Verizon contracts that expire at 12:01 a.m. Aug. 7 cover nearly 45,000 workers, from Massachusetts to Virginia, including thousands of Verizon employees in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. That union is holding a separate strike authorization vote.

Jim Spillane, a spokesman for the electrical workers, declined to comment on Verizon’s proposals or the contract talks.

The crux of the clash is Verizon’s financial health. The company says the wireline division is struggling, while the union says Verizon’s overall business is thriving.

Craig Moffett, a telecommunications analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, said: “It’s hard to argue with Verizon’s basic premise that the wireline business is a troubled business. They are going to have to find ways to shrink that business to maintain any semblance of viability.”

Last year, Verizon’s wireline division trimmed its work force by buying out 11,900 workers. Its wireline operations — which include home phones and FiOS — had revenues of $41.2 billion last year, down 2.9 percent from the previous year. At Verizon Wireless, a joint venture with Vodafone Group, a British company, revenue was $63.4 billion, a 5.1 percent increase over the previous year.

Verizon reported that its wireline operating income was $606 million for the first six months of this year, compared with $9.0 billion at Verizon Wireless.

Jeff Kagan, founder of a telecommunications research company in Atlanta, said Verizon’s landline division had no competition until the last decade.

Verizon has lost business to wireless companies, to companies like Vonage and Skype and to cable television companies, many of them nonunion like Comcast and Time Warner, Mr. Kagan said. “When you have competition with companies that are not unionized, it’s a different world,” he said.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=11e670036ffe5878e4edd41b327caa9d

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