Verizon negotiations heat up

As of this writing negotiations are continuing between the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), representing almost 80,000 workers, and telecommunications giant Verizon Communications.

Focus has shifted to national negotiations in Washington, D.C., where intense bargaining continues under an information blackout imposed by mediator Peter Hurtgen. Talks were reconvened Aug. 19 after an 11-day recess. Bargaining at regional tables resumed on Aug. 22.

Despite the information blackout, there have been unofficial reports that progress has been made in some areas. Health care, job security and work rule issues remain the major stumbling blocks. Management continues to demand concessions that CWA and IBEW consider to be unacceptable. Verizon is asking the workforce to bear the burden of health benefit cost increases, and is demanding the elimination of job security provisions in the previous contract.

Verizon also wants to increase by more than ten-fold the number of jobs that it is permitted to shift to low-wage states or countries. The fact that Verizon has previously outsourced work to India, and that another carrier, Bell South, is planning to move 900 jobs to India within the next five years, has caused serious concern.

Management introduced an additional road bump on Aug. 18 when it sued CWA Executive Vice President Larry Cohen for violating the company’s trademark by using the phrase, “Verizon, can you hear us now?” during a conference call with journalists. CWA responded by filing a lawsuit in federal court, charging Verizon and two top officers with violation of federal wiretap laws for eavesdropping on the invitation-only call.

Verizon’s lawsuit may be an indication of the intense pressure now felt by management. The union has stepped up this pressure by initiating a “Community Campaign Against Verizon Corporate Greed.” This campaign, a joint effort of the Verizon unions, the AFL-CIO, Jobs with Justice, and religious and political leaders, is organizing consumers to switch their phone service from Verizon to AT&T if the union calls for it. CWA International President Morton Bahr has called this campaign a “virtual strike” that “would directly impact the company’s revenue stream, which is what a traditional labor walkout is meant to do.”

Management has been coming under political pressure as well. In a recent letter to Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, 11 U.S. senators from northeastern states expressed their concern over the social and economic impact of Verizon’s drive to transfer and lay off workers and to shift health care costs onto workers. The senators also took issue with Verizon’s attempts to interfere with ongoing organizing efforts at its wireless division.

Meanwhile, workers remain on the job, although a strike has been authorized. According to an official statement by three CWA district vice presidents, the union’s tactics have left management in disarray: “Their year-long strategy … is not working … because we did not act as [they] predicted we would. We did not strike, costing the company $5 million each day to maintain the scab standby workforce. They believed the unity of CWA and IBEW would fall apart. It is stronger than ever. They believed our unity would weaken; that longer service employees would abandon less senior workers; that techs wouldn’t worry about service rep and operator services work being consolidated anywhere management saw fit; and no one would care about retirees. ... They do not have the slightest understanding of trade union solidarity.”

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