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Verizon Workers OK Strike as Talks Continue

With the current contract set to expire August 2, more than 65,000 employees will take to the picket line if negotiations fail to produce an agreement.

July 23, 2008
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More than 65,000 East Coast Verizon employees voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if talks fail to produce an agreement by the August 2 expiration of their current deal.

Officials from the Communications Workers of America said 91 percent of the workers voted to authorize a walkout if negotiations fail.

“It shows the overwhelming support members have for getting a fair contract,” a CWA spokeswoman said. “Meanwhile, both sides are working hard in bargaining to reach a fair agreement.”

An additional 15,000 mostly out-of-state workers who are represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers also voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike.

Verizon said it was not surprised by the affirmative strike votes.

“That’s pretty much standard procedure,” a Verizon spokesman said. “It really doesn’t mean anything about the tenor of the negotiations.”

Wages, health care, work rules and protection of union jobs are at the forefront of the negotiations for the workers, who insist they will fight to secure a contract with no givebacks on health care. Verizon’s employees are among a dwindling group of workers who do not have to contribute to health plans.

“We’ve sacrificed over the years in salary increases so we can hold on to the health care benefits we have,” said Jerome Paredes, a field technician in New York. “We haven’t seen it come out of checks like others, but we’ve already paid for it.”

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.

Despite the sputtering economy, workers say the negotiations come at an opportune time for them. That’s because Verizon has received permission from the New York state Public Service Commission to provide television service to 3.1 million households in New York City’s 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.

CWA members plan to rally in front of Verizon headquarters in Lower Manhattan on Saturday, July 26. The last time they walked off their jobs was in 2000, when a bitter strike lasted 18 days. The union extended the negotiation deadline in 2003, averting a work stoppage.

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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