Verizon Employees Work, And Wait

Verizon employees Darlene Stone of Colchester, Vt., left, and Lisa Heisler of Starksboro, Vt., rally in front of Verizon's South Burlington, Vt. offices on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2003 hours before a midnight strike deadline. The Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are negotiating a new three-year contract with Verizon.
Nearly 80,000 Verizon telephone employees remained on the job Monday as contract negotiations continued under a federal mediator.

A three-year contract expired at midnight Saturday and the union had threatened a strike, but telephone operators and technicians avoided any disruption of service at the nation's largest provider of local and wireless phone service.

"It's been our sense since Saturday that we've been making enough progress to continue to talk and to ask our members to stay on the job until further notice," said Jeff Miller, a spokesman for the Communications Workers of America, which represents about 60,000 workers. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers represents another 18,000.

Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe agreed that there was progress.

"We are getting some recognition in this contract that the business needs to change because we're in a much different environment than we've ever been in before," Rabe said. "That's quite a major shift."

As formal talks recessed for the night late Monday, CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson cautioned "there are some important concerns for our menbers that have yet to be resolved." She listed job security and family health care coverage as major outstanding issues.

As its local phone service business shrinks, Verizon wants to be able to cut costs, including asking employees to pay a higher share of health care or being able to lay off workers if necessary. The company's growth is occurring in areas where the work force is not heavily unionized, such as wireless phones and high-speed Internet connections. The union questions whether any layoffs are needed, and says any employees who lose their jobs should get first crack at other employment with the company.

The talks are taking place against the backdrop of a July arbitration ruling that required Verizon to rehire 2,300 people in New York state who had been laid off in December. Following the ruling, Verizon brought back about 1,100 laid-off employees in three other states, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts, who had also asked arbitrators to overturn the dismissals.

The company argued that the layoffs were justified because of a weak economy and tougher competition from rival companies and new technologies. But the New York arbitrator ruled that layoffs should be restricted to examples specified in the now-expired agreement, like the loss of a major contract.

A strike could disrupt some local service in northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, and delay repair and installation orders. An 18-day walkout in 2000 caused a backlog of about 250,000 repair requests and new orders for Verizon.

But the company said customers making regular long-distance and local calls should not have trouble. Verizon has 30,000 management employees and outside contract workers ready to take over in case of a walkout.

Among many of the management employees who've been ordered to be on standby in case of a strike, dread of a walkout is just as strong as it is among the unionized workers.

For some, it's the memories of previous strikes, in which they put in long hours in unfamiliar and sometimes physically demanding assignments a far cry from number-crunching and other typical white-collar duties.

For others, non-union employees who've been training to take over jobs including utility pole climbing, it's the experience of crossing picket lines to keep the jobs they have.

Verizon cut 18,000 jobs in 2002, primarily through attrition and voluntary buyouts.