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Verizon workers grow impatient with union leaders

By a Verizon worker | August 22, 2003 | Page 15

NEW YORK--Two weeks after the expiration of contracts that covered 78,000 Verizon workers in the Northeast, union negotiators admitted to rank-and-file members that they are "back to square one" in the negotiations. Yet despite the company's intransigence on the key issues of health care and job security, leaders of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) refuse to call a strike.

This has confused, demoralized and outraged thousands of their members, who have a history of walking off the job the minute the contract expires. While many initially supported the idea of working without a contract because it caught the company off-guard, increasing numbers have voiced their frustration with the strategy.

At informational meetings in numerous work locations in the second week of working without a contract, union representatives have been heckled by shouts of "Let's strike!" and "Enough is enough!" After winning strikes in 1998 and 2000, many union members feel they can fight and win again.

The unions claim their strategy is working. By holding out the threat of a strike without actually carrying it out, the unions argue that they are costing the company millions in pay and hotel provisions to management who have been dispatched to the Northeast to scab if workers do walk out.

At the same time, the company is paying wages for union workers to stay on the job, where the union is asking them to work to rule. The unions have accompanied this strategy with the organization of several small rallies per day at various worksites and other locations throughout the Northeast.

This could be an effective means to keep the membership informed and energized and to put more pressure on the company. But the union has conducted these rallies in such a secretive, top-down manner that the membership is usually informed shortly before the rallies--if at all--and then handed signs while union officials and local politicians make a few speeches before sending people into work.

After a week of failed negotiations, the AFL-CIO announced a campaign to convince union members and their families to switch telephone service providers in the event of a breakdown in negotiations. The unions hope that they can convince Verizon to back off from their aggressive demands for givebacks if they can show that hundreds of thousands of union members and supporters would take their business to AT&T--another unionized carrier.

Such a boycott-type strategy could provide useful additional leverage if Verizon workers were actually on strike. But this is not how union leaders are actually using this tactic. They hope to use the threat of taking millions of dollars in business away from Verizon as a way of avoiding a strike. In fact, the CWA--which represents 60,000 members at Verizon--has called the campaign a "virtual strike" and "an effective economic blow against the company's bottom line, which we can activate whenever the union decides it's time."

This is consistent with the unions' strategy ever since the contract expired on August 2. Through exhibiting "good faith" in negotiations and holding out the threat of doing damage to Verizon's revenues, the unions have hoped they could avoid an outright confrontation. But the choice for the unions is between having that confrontation or agreeing to take concessions.

In fact, Verizon decided long ago that it would use the expiration of the contract to seek unprecedented givebacks from the union. The company laid off 3,400 workers in December in violation of the contract until an arbitrator's decision forced management to back down.

Meanwhile, management spent at least one year training managers from around the country to perform union members' jobs in the event of the strike. The company lined up additional scabs through eight temporary agencies. Verizon also anticipated losing revenue during a strike, in addition to spending millions to house and pay scabs.

To Verizon bosses, the idea of losing tens of millions--or even hundreds of millions--of dollars in the short term matters little when compared with the much larger gains they could win through significantly weakening the union.

In the meantime, Verizon has taken advantage of the unions' passivity to ratchet up harassment of the workforce and to force onerous overtime requirements on its technicians. In the New York City area, technicians have been forced to work overtime for the last two weekends under a declared "state of emergency." This means that by August 21, technicians will have worked at least 19 consecutive days--for up to 12 hours a day in some locations.

Verizon claimed that the state of emergency was due first to heavy rains and thunderstorms, and then to the blackout that hit the Northeast last week. But these claims are contrived. The blackout did not create a backlog of repairs, since service was virtually unaffected.

Furthermore, technicians throughout all five boroughs reported being assigned installation orders and other assignments clearly not related to the "state of emergency"--in violation of contract language that enables the company to force overtime on its workers in the first place. In reality, Verizon is cynically trying both to antagonize the workforce and to get a jump on its workload in the event that the unions do strike.

But union members' patience is wearing thin. A Verizon worker from New Jersey summed up this frustration on an anti-Verizon web site, when he wrote: "I have had enough. The idea was great to continue to work without a contract. But now [with] forced overtime, we are eating shit, and [by us] helping to clean up all the work they will be more and more secure we won't go out. WE are together--it is time to walk."

What rank-and-file members need to do now is organize to put pressure on the union to act. Individuals in some worksites have started campaigns among their coworkers to call their International headquarters and to e-mail CWA President Morton Bahr to demand an immediate strike. This is a good start.

In addition, CWA has finally called a mass rally of New York City-area locals at Verizon's corporate headquarters for Thursday, August 21. We need to use this opportunity to make ourselves heard to union leaders: The time to strike is now!

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