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Verizon Workers Likely to OK Strike as Talks Continue

July 11, 2008
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More than 65,000 Verizon employees on the East Coast—including 15,000 in the New York City area—are expected next week to authorize their unions to call a strike if negotiations fail to produce an agreement by the August 2 expiration of their current contract.

Officials from the Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers will count members’ votes beginning Monday and should have a final tally by the end of the week. Most Verizon workers in the city have cast ballots by mail, though members of the small Staten Island CWA local voted in person this past week to authorize the strike by a 169-22 vote.

Wages, health care, work rules and protection of union jobs are at the forefront of the negotiations for the workers, who say that rising gas and fuel prices have heightened their resolve to secure a contract with fair raises and no give-backs on health care. Verizon’s employees are among a dwindling group of workers that do not have to contribute to health plans, and they are determined to hold on to that benefit.

“We sent out a survey for people to list their top five issues,” said Ed Luster, president of CWA Local 1102 on Staten Island. “Wages and health care this time around are neck and neck, one and two. There’s a coin toss.”

Workers say the negotiations come at an opportune time for them, despite the sputtering economy. That’s because Verizon is soon likely to gain permission from the New York State Public Service Commission to provide television service to 3.1 million households in the five boroughs. Verizon has said it will make a “historic investment” to build out its advanced fiber-optic FIOS network and provide an alternative to cable for residents across the city. Nationally, the company is expected to spend $23 billion to roll out the FIOS technology.

Workers say the importance of FIOS to Verizon gives them added leverage in negotiations because the company would not want a strike to interrupt the rollout process.

“If they have $23 billion to spend on FIOS, they shouldn’t have a problem taking care of us,” said Jerome Paredes, a Bronx field technician.

A Verizon spokesman would not comment on specifics of the negotiations, but said the company is committed to negotiating in good faith to come to a timely agreement.

“Our expectation is to negotiate new contracts that will continue to provide leading wage and benefit packages,” he said.

Verizon and the unions had agreed to begin negotiations early, but the workers walked out of talks last fall over what they deemed to be an inadequate proposal on health care.

Bargaining resumed May 27, but workers say the sides remain far apart. They say the company is intent on getting concessions on health care, including a proposal that new hires would not have health benefits when they retire.

The unions plan to rally in front of Verizon headquarters in Lower Manhattan on July 26. Verizon workers walked off the job for 18 days in 2000. They extended the negotiation deadline in 2003, averting a strike.

“Historically negotiations tend to go down to the wire,” said Bob Master, a CWA spokesman. “I have a feeling this is not going to be much different from the usual. We have a lot of hard bargaining ahead of us.”

Perhaps the trickiest issue has to do with the union’s push to protect jobs in the future. The bargaining unit has been shrinking as Verizon moves call centers abroad and shifts traditional bargaining unit work to lower-wage, lower-benefit employees at Verizon Business and Verizon Wireless, the CWA says. The percentage of Verizon’s revenue that comes from union operations has shrunk to 30 percent this year, compared with 70 percent in 2002, according to the union. Last year, the company had $93.5 billion in revenue.

As technology rapidly increases, the union wants guarantees that jobs that would traditionally be part of the bargaining unit do not get shifted to nonunion arms of Verizon.

“There are a lot of new jobs opening up, a lot of change in the industry,” Master said. “We want to make sure the workers who come into the industry with those changes enjoy the protection of being members of a union.”

Filed by Daniel Massey of Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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