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Bosses out to break union power
Big stakes at Verizon

By Michael Ware | August 8, 2003 | Page 12

SOME 78,000 union workers at Verizon could strike at any time as contract negotiations extended past an August 3 deadline as Socialist Worker went to press. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) were sending their members to work without a contract, claiming that enough progress had been made to merit continued negotiations.

The contract covers workers from Virginia to Maine, with 60,000 belonging to the CWA. The fate of the CWA union drive at Verizon Wireless is also on the line.

But while CWA and IBEW leaders say that they're ready to call a strike at any time, there has been little of the kind of preparations seen during strike victories of 1998 and 2000. Instead, after a mobilization in the weeks leading up to the deadline, workers were told to report to work as usual as the contract expired. Many were angry at the failure to walk out.

In New York, CWA members were kept in the dark about the details of negotiations. CWA International union leaders told members via e-mail, "We have a carefully developed plan that supports bargaining, and right now, that plan does not include any actions that affect the business of the company." The union cautioned members against "planning or discussing options that affect Verizon's business." CWA Local 1101 in Manhattan, however, advised members to work to rule.

With the contract now expired but not formally extended, management has a free hand to cancel the grievance process or refuse to deduct union dues from paychecks--a possibility that some CWA local union leaders have already raised with members.

CWA and IBEW leaders have chosen a dangerous strategy--one that risks both unions' recent gains.

Verizon lost an arbitration decision to the unions in July, forcing it to rehire 3,400 workers with full back pay. Now management wants a new contract that will allow it to get rid of the same workers--adding to the 15,000 jobs shed since 2000. As the contract expired, the two sides remained far apart on job security and health care issues, with the company demanding broader rights to transfer work, as well as higher co-pays for health benefits.

The company survived the industry's crisis in one of the strongest positions of any company, with profits of $4.1 billion last year. Yet Verizon is trying to turn public opinion against the unions with ads suggesting that workers are overpaid and ungrateful.

The CWA has responded with its own ads, but union leaders are clearly worried that public sentiment is against them. The decision to work without a contract reflects this.

Management, meanwhile, is itching for a fight. It faces the most militant and unionized workforce of any company in the increasingly non-union telecommunications industry--and it wants to break that power. The company has used at least eight temp agencies to recruit thousands of scabs. Retired managers are also expected to work with current managers to break what both sides acknowledge would be a long and bitter strike.

There's no reason to assume that working people wouldn't support a fight at Verizon--if the union gives them the chance. Most people haven't forgotten the corporate greed on display in the Enron scandal--or how they're bled monthly for mediocre phone service, for that matter.

Our unions have the power to win this fight. The key will be an active, organized membership that understands the survival of the union is at stake.

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