March 5, 2021

Strikers Trade Barbs With Verizon

Verizon officials assert that this is largely a shrewd talking point aimed at wooing public support for the workers. The company insists that the striking employees are handsomely paid and will remain solidly in the middle class even if Verizon wins on some of the disputed issues, like getting the workers to pay at least $1,200 more a year toward health coverage.

Throughout this first week of the walkout by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the sides have contradicted each other and talked past each other as they jockey to win public backing and rally their supporters.

For instance, union officials say Verizon’s proposed health insurance changes would cost some workers $6,800 more each year, and its overall proposals would cost workers $20,000 on average each year. But Verizon’s top spokesman called the $6,800 health assertion “distorted” and the $20,000 claim “bogus.”

In the states stretching from Massachusetts to Virginia, where the unions are on strike, workers picketed on Friday at scores of company facilities, with the communications workers president, Larry Cohen, joining the picketing in Philadelphia. In addition to the health insurance changes, Verizon has called for a pension freeze, reduction of sick days and elimination of all job security provisions — a proposal workers fear will lead to far more layoffs and outsourcing, especially of call center workers.

“The package of concessions they’re seeking is so sweeping in terms of wages, benefits, pension, vacation and sick days that it would take what are good union jobs and push people into a very different economic situation,” said Pam Galpern, a Verizon field technician in New York City for 12 years. “We see this as a definite attack on the middle class, and there’s no justification for it from a company that’s so profitable.”

Verizon officials show little patience with union talk about imperiled middle-class workers, “This is a well-worn negotiating and communications ploy — it’s not a statement of fact,” said Peter Thonis, Verizon’s chief spokesman.

Verizon says its unionized workers average $70,000 a year before overtime and $91,000 with overtime. But union officials say only a small percentage of workers earn that much with overtime, an amount they say would require hundreds of hours of it.

Company officials note that the average American worker earns $23 an hour, translating to $48,000 a year for a full-time worker. “The striking workers earn considerably more than many unionized nurses and teachers,” Mr. Thonis said. “We’re at the very top of our industry in terms of compensation.”

He said the strikers were part of a rarefied group who contributed nothing toward their health insurance premiums. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, just 1 percent of American workers pay nothing toward their family coverage premiums. The unions say the workers pay 7 percent of their health coverage through copayments and deductibles.

Doug Anderson, a Verizon field technician for 15 years, said he was barely in the middle class and would fall out of it if Verizon won concessions.

“What we make is just a living wage in the New York area,” said Mr. Anderson, 53, a father of three who lives in Poughkeepsie. “On what I earn, my family can’t even afford to live where I work — Westchester County. And on what we earn, it’s hard to send a child through college.”

Warning that the strike might be a long one, Robert Master, a union spokesman, said the workers were angry because the company seemed intent on cutting compensation costs even though it had $22 billion in profits the last four years. But Verizon officials say that nearly all the striking employees work in its landline division, which faces intense competitive pressures. Its customer base and profit margins have shrunk over the last decade, they said.

Industry analysts estimate that the Verizon workers earn several dollars more an hour than workers at largely nonunion cable competitors like Cablevision and Time Warner.

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