Contract Confrontation Seen Next Year- Verizon Workers Protest Layoffs by Profitable Telecom Giant
Highly profitable Verizon, the nation’s largest telecom firm, has ordered pre-Christmas job cuts for thousands of workers-setting the stage for a major confrontation during contract negotiations next summer. Unless a multitude of shop-floor, contractual, regulatory, public pressure, and street-level protests by Verizon’s two unions succeed, the downsizing will eliminate 7,000 jobs, from Maine to Virginia, by December 19.
Combined with previous cuts made through attrition and early retirement offers, this move would reduce the union workforce by 25% in 2002 and lead to the first layoffs in New England since the mid-1970s and the first ever in New York.
A company proposal to delay further “surplus” declarations until August, when the current contract expires-in return for massive contract concessions-was rejected December 3 by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). Verizon’s list of demands included a two-year wage freeze, benefit cuts, scheduling changes, weakening of job security provisions, and greater flexibility to transfer work from the Northeast to other areas of the country or to contract it out locally.
Noting that Verizon’s net income more than doubled during the third quarter and that its solid operating earnings were the best among the “Baby Bells,” CWA negotiator Chris Shelton called management’s position “an insult.” According to Shelton, this Verizon “attack...means we are at war, doing everything and anything can, anywhere we must do it, to protect our contracts and job security.”
CWA and IBEW members have been mobilizing for “Jobs, Not Greed” since last spring. In May, 5,000 angry workers marched on Verizon headquarters, kicking off a campaign of workplace activity, informational picketing, legal action, TV, radio, and newspaper ads, plus outreach to legislators, regulators, and consumers. Mass rallies in November drew crowds of 2,000 in Boston and 7,000 in New York City, where CWA members gathered outside a phone company building badly damaged on 9/11.
One theme of the anti-layoff campaign has been management’s callous treatment of workers who, only a year before, Verizon hailed as “heroes” for their round-the-clock work restoring vital communication networks serving lower Manhattan customers such as the Stock Exchange.
In consumer leafleting, hearings held by New York City Council members and state legislators, and CWA-conducted press tours of Verizon’s “outside plant” facilities, union activists have linked cuts in jobs and capital spending to the deterioration of phone service quality-especially for what the company calls “low-value” customers.
In Brooklyn-the site of one well-publicized tour of dilapidated poles, phone lines, and connection boxes-state Public Service Commission records show that Verizon customers are suffering from longer waits for installations and repairs because 400 technician jobs have already been eliminated. An internal company document obtained by an IBEW member in Massachusetts and released to the press confirms that Verizon managers foresee more customer complaints, “out-of-service” situations, and “network events” occurring due to cutbacks in the maintenance budget and related downsizing.
“The quality of telephone service in this state is apparently in real decline,” said New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, after grilling Verizon officials at a public hearing sought by the union and consumer groups.
In New England, Verizon is using disciplinary action or threats of it to discourage mobilization activity. IBEW stewards and BAs have been accused of attempting to “direct the workforce”-by encouraging jobsite meetings and daily safety checks on all Verizon vehicles before they leave garages. Some technicians have been written up for alleged “low productivity.”
MID-RANGE BIG BUCKS
Telephone workers have, in turn, targeted the excessive compensation of top executives, filing a shareholders resolution that challenges Verizon’s current stock option reporting and accounting practices. During the last five years, nine officials were paid more than $365 million in salary, options, and bonuses-with CEO Ivan Seidenberg receiving $56 million and Vice-Chairman Larry Babbio $78 million.
Both executives have reacted angrily to CWA’s ad campaign, defending their compensation as “mid-range.” Verizon attorney Thomas Yannucci wrote that one ad’s “instruction to listeners to call Mr. Seidenberg on his direct phone line is intentionally interfering with [his] ability to conduct business.”
The anti-layoff fight is paving the way for another CWA-IBEW contract campaign in 2003, of the sort that preceded a four-month work stoppage in 1989 at NYNEX (a predecessor of Verizon) by 60,000 telephone workers. Both unions will be demanding job security, pension improvements, enforcible organizing rights, and no health care cost shifting or retiree medical cuts.
“We learned in ‘89, and again in 2000, that our bargaining and strike success requires close cooperation and coordination,” says Boston IBEW telephone workers’ leader Myles Calvey. “Our joint activity this time will involve hundreds of stewards and other members in a mobilization process designed to forge greater power for both unions in unity against Verizon.”
Steve Early and Bob Master helped coordinate telephone worker contract campaigns and strikes at NYNEX in 1989, Bell Atlantic in 1998, and Verizon in 2000.