March 1, 2021

Sharp Rift in a Strike at Verizon

The walkout is unusual at a time when unemployment is steep and organized labor has lost several big battles. But union leaders are angry that Verizon has budged little from its long list of demands during six weeks of negotiations. The unions have resisted Verizon’s requests for concessions on scores of issues because the company has been very profitable overall, with net income of $6.9 billion in the first six months of this year.

Verizon notes that most of its lines of business that deliver services over wires — the part of the company where the striking workers are employed — are in decline. The bulk of the company’s profits come from Verizon Wireless, a thriving, nonunion joint venture that is majority-owned by Verizon.

The strike is the largest in the nation since 74,000 General Motors workers walked out for two days in 2007, although some union leaders warned that the Verizon strike could last much longer because the two sides remain far apart.

Union leaders and workers said the walkout would inevitably cause significant delays in phone repairs and in installations of its fast-growing FiOS television and Internet services in customers’ homes. But Verizon officials said the company had tens of thousands of managers ready to step in to do the work normally done by the striking workers.

Verizon’s chief executive, Lowell C. McAdam, took a hard line on Sunday, arguing that workers in Verizon’s heavily unionized wireline businesses must agree to cost reductions. The wireline businesses, which include home and business telephone landlines as well as the FiOS services, have had declines in their customer base and profitability in the last decade, amid growing competition from mobile phones, cable companies and services like Skype and Vonage.

“It is clear that some of the existing contract provisions, negotiated initially when Verizon was under far less competitive pressure, are not in line with the economic realities of business today,” Mr. McAdam wrote in a letter on Sunday to the company’s management to discuss the strike. “As the U.S. automobile industry found out a few years ago, failure to make needed adjustments — when the need for change is obvious — can be catastrophic.”

The strike involves Verizon repair technicians, FiOS installers and call center workers from Massachusetts to Virginia. The walkout was called by the Communications Workers of America, which represents 35,000 of the strikers, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents 10,000.

Verizon wants the unionized workers to start contributing to their health care premiums, including $1,300 to $3,000 a year toward family coverage. The company has also called for freezing pension contributions for current employees, eliminating traditional pensions for future workers, limiting sick days to five a year, and eliminating all job security provisions.

“What they’re asking is hard for us to swallow because the company had profits of $22 billion over the last four years,” said Joe Iorio, a field technician based in Brooklyn, who has worked for Verizon for 15 years. “They’re crying poverty, they say they can’t afford to pay us. We’re just not going to stand for it anymore.”

Several union members said they were insulted that they were being asked to make deep concessions when Verizon’s top five executives received a total of $258 million in compensation, including stock options, over the last four years.

Verizon says its unionized employees are well paid, with many field technicians earning more than $90,000 a year, including overtime, with an additional $50,000 in benefits. Union officials say the field technicians and call center workers generally earn $60,000 to $77,000 a year before overtime and that benefits come to far less than $50,000 a year.

Michael Parker, executive vice president for a communications workers’ local in Annapolis, Md., said it was not easy to go on strike. “It’s a scary thing — we have 45,000 families that don’t have income coming in,” he said. “But we have to draw a line in the sand and defend what we believe in. We bargained for 50 years to gain these things, and we don’t want to give that back.”

Jeff Kagan, founder of a telecommunications research firm in Georgia, said the strike would undoubtedly slow construction of Verizon’s FiOS network and installation of FiOS in homes, but the short-term hit was worth it to Verizon.

“Their traditional local phone business is shrinking, while the other parts of the business are still growing,” he said. “It’s just a matter of restructuring so they can remain competitive. If they’re not competitive, Verizon will lose business and everyone loses — investors, customers and workers.”

Richard Hurd, a professor of labor relations at Cornell, said the two unions felt Verizon was trying to humble them by pushing them to adopt some of the same, less generous benefits that many of the company’s 135,000 nonunion workers have. “When you challenge unions like that, in a sense the company is pushing them into a strike,” he said.

In 2000, Verizon had another big strike, when 86,000 workers walked out for two weeks, causing widespread delays in repairs.

As recently as Wednesday, union and Verizon officials said they thought a strike was highly unlikely. But several union officials said on Sunday that they were stunned that Verizon still had 100 proposals for concessions on the negotiating table on Saturday, including ones to eliminate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and Veterans Day as holidays.

“No one expected six weeks of bargaining would produce absolutely no movement or compromise by the company,” said Robert Master, a communications workers spokesman. “This was an unprecedented situation.”

Verizon officials have repeatedly said that the two unions broke off talks on Sunday, but union officials said they have asked for new meetings, and Verizon has refused.

Article source:

Speak Your Mind