Showdown at Bell Atlantic Will Focus on Keeping Telephone Industry Unionized

Eighty-five thousand members of the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers from Maine to Virginia face a showdown with Bell Atlantic on August 5 over the issue of organizing rights at its new subsidiaries.

Past bargaining with the company over health benefits and job security resulted in protracted disputes in 1989 and 1995 and a brief strike two years ago.

Negotiations this summer take place amidst a $53 billion merger with GTE that will create Verizon--a new telecom giant first in profits, second in revenues, and third in market capitalization, with a workforce of 260,000.

While local phone service at GTE and BA remain heavily unionized, their nationwide cellular network will not be. Already operating as Verizon Wireless, this new entity will employ more than 30,000 workers. Only a handful are covered by union contracts.

"The companies' core business--wireline--is going the way of the blacksmith," said Boston IBEW leader Myles Calvey, whose Local 2222 represents 3,500 BA workers. "Meanwhile, we're shut out of wireless."

Calvey's local used to represent two small groups of wireless workers at NYNEX in New England before it was taken over by Bell Atlantic in 1996. The new management immediately withdrew recognition in these mobile phone units and eliminated the jobs of IBEW supporters--an act of union-busting that is still being litigated at the NLRB more than four years later.

To prevent such interference with organizing and bargaining in the future, both BA unions are seeking a card check and neutrality agreement that would make it easier for Verizon workers to become members.

BARGAINING FOR OUR FUTURE

The unions have tried to build rank and file backing for this goal by making organizing rights a central part of workplace education and mobilization prior to contract expiration. Hundreds of stewards have participated in a two-day course entitled "Bargaining For Our Future," which examines the impact of corporate mergers and restructuring on telephone union contracts, describes management's deunionization strategy, and makes the case for card check and neutrality. (Copies of the training materials are available by calling 781/937-9600.)

While the joint contract campaign got underway this spring, a festering dispute over HMO cost increases almost led to a one-day walkout by 35,000 workers on May 24, the day of Bell Atlantic's annual meeting (which was held in Denver to minimize employee-shareholder disruptions).

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The strike was threatened by CWA locals in New York and New England where there has been a pattern of unilateral changes in job rights, benefits, and working conditions since the BA-NYNEX merger. The union has been challenging these at the NLRB, which issued five separate unfair labor practice complaints and, as of early May, was investigating nine other cases.

The most serious ULP's involved increased doctor co-pays, prescription drug costs, and charges for other services like emergency room visits that had not been negotiated with the union. As CWA Attorney Gay Semel argued, "Health care cost-shifting that the company had not been able to get through the front door when the union struck for four months in 1989, it was now trying to get through the back door, by nickel-and-diming members with HMO coverage."

Rather than wait for years for these health care issues to be litigated at the Board, the union took the position that management's conduct was undermining the collective bargaining relationship to such a degree that workers had the right to walk off the job in protest without being in violation of their no-strike clause.

RISK

This strategy involved an element of risk because there was no guarantee that, when challenged legally by the company, the walkout would be deemed protected concerted activity by the NLRB. If the company's view of the strike prevailed, Bell Atlantic would be able to discipline strikers and seek money damages form the union.

Despite such uncertainty, a majority of 30 local presidents voted in April to set a strike deadline and prepare for the work stoppage with a day of "practice picketing" on May 4.

Management responded by escalating its threats of legal action, harassing some of the stewards who were mobilizing their co-workers for the walkout, and, in late May, seeking an injunction to block the strike. ULP case settlement discussions--which had been fruitless before--became quite intensive on the eve of the shareholders meeting, leading to a one-week postponement of the strike and, ultimately, a negotiated agreement.

Under the terms of this deal, which will be overseen by the NLRB, Bell Atlantic was forced to rescind its HMO cost increases, as they applied to both working members and (pre-age 65) retirees, and make individual reimbursements totaling more than $4 million.

"Not only did we force Bell Atlantic to settle the HMO cases, as well as various other ULP's, we also changed the dynamic of our relationship with the company," said CWA District 1 Vice President Larry Mancino. "Hopefully, this victory will set a better tone for bargaining this summer."

CWA and IBEW members are preparing for marches, rallies, and other coordinated workplace activity as regional negotiations begin during the last week in June. The unions are also recruiting hundreds of members to serve on "flying squads" of mobile pickets to increase the impact of any strike that may become necessary on August 6.