Telephone Strikers Curb Verizon's Culture of Stress

After a convincing demonstration that strikes are not some outmoded tool of the past, 87,000 telephone workers at Verizon Communications have new contracts. The agreements provide the unions with a strategic foothold to organize the new wireless communications industry. And they place new restrictions on the kind of life-dislocating, family-unfriendly policies such as forced overtime that corporations like to impose in the name of flexibility.

But the Communications Workers of America managed to put a bad taste into the victory champagne by sending New York and New England members back to work before their counterparts in the Middle Atlantic states had settled.

Together with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the CWA reached a tentative agreement in New York and New England on August 20. Union leaders sent their members back to work. That didn't sit well with the 37,000 workers at Verizon's mid-Atlantic facilities, who remained on strike for three more days on overtime issues.

Although all 87,000 strikers have had the same employer since the Bell Atlantic-Nynex merger in 1996, the CWA continued its pre-merger practice of separate bargaining by the two units.

The return the work in New York-New England surprised many of the Mid-Atlantic workers. On August 22, the still-striking unions bused members into New York City to picket facilities there. At first members of CWA's big Local 1101 in New York were told to cross the lines. The next day CWA President Morty Bahr instructed members to honor all CWA pickets. But the confusion left many feeling sour.

Days later at the CWA convention, some mid-Atlantic members demonstrated on the convention floor with placards reading, "3 Days Longer¼And a Whole Lot Stronger."

Ratification votes were scheduled for late September.

IMPORTANT GAINS

Almost everyone sees the agreements as a victory for the unions, containing significant gains that will impact bargaining when contracts covering 260,000 more telecommunications workers expire next year.

The two agreements are the same in most respects, including the 12.5 percent increase over three years, several benefit increases, caps on overtime, limits on job transfers and outsourcing, and increased access to previously nonunion work.

In a pale imitation of the executive practice of taking stock options, bargaining unit employees will get the option to buy 100 shares of Verizon.

The New York-New England settlement reduced mandatory overtime for technicians from 15 to 10 hours a week. The three extra days on strike won the mid-Atlantic workers another reduction to 8 hours, effective next January.

One of the sticking points that kept mid-Atlantic workers out was overtime and stress in the customer service call centers. There, overtime was reduced even further, from 15 hours to 7½ hours per week.

VERIZON WIRELESS

For the CWA, the biggest breakthrough was the right to organize workers at Verizon Wireless through a card check procedure. This will allow the union to represent any unit where 55 percent of workers sign union cards. This arrangement has already proved effective at SBC, another super-Baby Bell, where the union has organized 5,000 of the 15,000 wireless communications workers.

Verizon Wireless is the nation's largest wireless service provider with 25 million customers. It has 32,000 workers eligible for unionization, of whom only about 50 are already organized. Verizon's nonunion Wireless workers make about 70 percent of their CWA counterparts' wages, have weaker benefits, and, of course, no grievance procedure or independent voice on the job.

Under the current agreement, the CWA will have access to about 5,600 of these workers in 13 eastern and mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia as of next March. Another 1,400 employees in Verizon Wireless stores will be eligible six months later. Other locations are not included in the deal.

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The union is confident that it has now gained a strategic foothold for the organization of wireless communications. There are currently about 60,000 unorganized wireless workers employed by companies that have contracts with the CWA. The total number of workers in wireless communications is expected to grow to 350,000 in the next decade.

The new agreement also gives the union access to all installation and repair work in the new high-speed internet (DSL) services. Previously, union workers only installed the wiring up to the equipment and the rest of the job was done by a nonunion subsidiary. Now union members will complete the entire installation and any needed repairs.

FLEXIBILITY

The business press is warning that the agreement might limit the flexibility that firms in the competitive high tech economy are supposed to need. "Union workers need to be careful not to cripple Verizon as it moves into the Internet Age," said Business Week.

The continuation of the no-layoff clause, the new caps on overtime, the bringing back and limitation of outsourced work, and the new limits on the transfer of jobs to other regions are examples of fairly unusual restrictions on the life-dislocating and health-ruining policies corporations like to call "flexibility." Overall, they are a step forward for bargaining in rapidly changing high tech industries.

There are a few tradeoffs, though. The company claims that the agreement that limits the number of jobs they can transfer to seven in 1,000 gives them more flexibility than the old formula of five in 1,000. The union, however, points out that the geographic units defined in the new language are smaller than those in the 1998 contract, restricting the movement of jobs even more.

But there are some clear "flexibility" trade-offs. In return for union access to all DSL work, the company will be able to make assignments to that work based solely on "qualifications," by-passing seniority.

The most alarming flexibility feature of the new agreement is a "team-based incentive plan." Under this arrangement, workers in the New York-New England area "can earn bonuses of up to 10 percent of their base pay if their team meets objectives established by the business unit," according to the company. This seems like a recipe for speed-up and competition among work units.

UNION LEVERAGE

Despite some problems, the gains at Verizon, like those made by engineers and technicians at Boeing earlier this year, show that unions in high tech industries have enormous power. This power flows in part from the skills of the workers and, ironically, in part from the competition deregulation is introducing.

The fear of losing business in the newer high tech, high profit services was a visible factor in the 1998 US West strike. The inability to fill existing orders was also a factor at Boeing. Both were a problem for Verizon as the strike wore on toward fall.

The loss of business was already a headache for Verizon. As Business Week noted, "Competitors are expected to swipe as much as 15 percent of the 22 million local business phone lines in Bell Atlantic's territory by the end of this year, up from 10 percent at the end of 1999."

Both Sprint and AT&T said that requests for their local phone service were up during the strike.

The problem would have been magnified if the strike had gone into September when schools open and orders for internet and phone service surge. The shear density of these and other telecommunications-consuming institutions along the Boston to Washington urban corridor, combined with the proliferation of competing firms, gave the unions the kind of leverage once associated with older goods-producing industries.

Unions of high tech workers have the additional advantage of the skills and experience of their members, which makes recruiting scabs difficult. Even though the company brought in some 30,000 management personnel and retirees to do struck work, they remained about 280,000 orders behind. The expected surge of fall orders would have overwhelmed even so experienced and large an army of strikebreakers.

Next year, contracts will expire at SBC, which now includes Ameritech and Southern New England Telecommunications; GTE units in the Southwest; Bell South; and US West.