May 3, 2016
By Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel
New York, NY – Verizon offering its striking workers a bigger raise is “meaningless” as long as the company keeps insisting on undermining their job security, says a union representing them.
“The issue really isn’t the money,” says Communications Workers of America official Bob Master. “The central issue is the protection of good middle-class jobs.”
More than 35,000 workers in Verizon’s wire-line unit, from technicians to call-center operators, have been on strike since April 13, the longest at the company since a 17-week walkout in 1989. Verizon issued what chief administrative officer Marc Reed called its “last, best, and final” contract offer to the two unions representing them, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, on April 28.
The proposed three-year deal increases the company’s wage offer from a 6.5% raise to 7.5%, and wouldn’t insist that the company could transfer technicians out of state for two months at a time. Verizon now says technicians will not be transferred anywhere that would be too far for them to commute back home. For example, a technician based in northern New Jersey could be assigned to work in New York City, says company spokesperson Ray McConville.
However, the proposal would increase workers’ health-care payments by about 20%, cut off pension increases for workers who spend more than 30 years on the job, end family leave for new hires, and says it will only guarantee job security if the unions accept “workforce flexibility changes.”
Those “flexibility” changes include outsourcing maintenance of outside lines to nonunion contractors and closing 16 call centers from upstate New York to Virginia. The 50 workers at the call center in Glens Falls, N.Y. would be moved to Albany, 54 miles away, and the 34 in Allentown, Pa. to Philadelphia, about 60 miles away. In New York, it wants the right to send technicians up to 50 miles away from the location they report to, according to the CWA. It is also demanding the right to offer workers buyouts directly rather than going through the union, says McConville.
Verizon’s current contracts permit the use of outside contractors, and “we have not proposed adding to that,” says McConville. The call-center jobs are not being eliminated, only moved, he adds. Some of the 16 call centers, such as those in Oneonta and Rome in upstate New York, have only three workers.
In public statements and full-page newspaper adds, Verizon has framed this issue as getting rid of “legacy constraints that may have made sense in the Ma Bell era of phone booths and Princess phones.” The union finds that insulting. Verizon is dismissing its landline workers as “antiques,” says Master, but it is also refusing to give a contract to the about 175 unionized wireless-division workers because it doesn’t want to pay more than the “industry standard.” Verizon wireless retail workers make a base salary of less than $30,000 a year and average about $45,000 with commissions, he says, about $25,000 less than comparable union workers.
Some have speculated that Verizon would be happy to jettison its wire-line division, which it says generated about 29% of company revenue in 2015, but only 7% of its profits. New York State and Philadelphia have both launched investigations of whether the company is abandoning its copper-line network, Master says. Last June, the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications found “an egregious failure on the part of Verizon to deliver on the FiOS agreement,” the company’s deal to build high-speed fiber-optic lines to every household in the city by 2014.
On the other hand, Verizon announced plans to start building a FiOS network in Boston the day before the strike began, says Master. It can’t just abandon its landlines, he adds, because it is legally regulated as a phone company, obligated to provide phone service as a “carrier of last resort.”
The unions have been willing to make concessions on health care, he says, and their main job-security issues are “not big money.” They want the call centers kept open and call-center work kept in-state. Union customer-service operators now make about $70,000 a year, according to Master. In states like Oklahoma, at Verizon they make $12 or $13 an hour, and in the Philippines, they make $277 a month. A company that makes $18 billion a year in profit and paid shareholders more than $13 billion in 2015, he adds, “should have call centers that pay a living wage.”
They also want Verizon to issue “job-security letters” that no workers will be laid off as long as any services are contracted out, and not to contract out technical work. Maintaining outside lines is a dangerous job even when done by experienced workers: Nine Verizon technicians have died in electrical accidents since 2002. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration named Verizon a “severe violator” in 2013, after Douglas LaLima, a 37-year-old father of four, was electrocuted while installing FiOS cables on a telephone pole in Brooklyn.
“Unsafe practices would become standard practice if Verizon pushed through its plan to outsource work to cut-rate contractors,” field technician Brendan Haugh said in a CWA statement. “We’re striking to make sure Verizon has the skilled and experienced staff necessary to serve our customers safely.”
“We’ve got a very good offer on the table,” says Verizon’s McConville. “The wage increase is larger than the increase in medical costs.”
“It would be very easy to settle this strike,” Master says, but “if they’re determined, if they think they can break us, it’ll be a long time.”