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A "flexible" attack on unions

By a Verizon worker | April 6, 2007 | Page 14

EMPLOYERS' DEMANDS for "labor flexibility" have been at the center of big union struggles around the world, from the protests of France's anti-labor laws to Bolivia's mass strikes. This drive by management to do what it wants with labor is a key ingredient in their 30-year, international campaign to restructure capitalism to be more profitable at the expense of workers.

"Labor flexibility" has many faces. Throughout the 1990s in the U.S., the trend was most visible in the rise of the temp economy, where major companies like Microsoft employed primarily temporary employees with no job security and no benefits (known as micro-serfs).

Last year in France, unions and students went on strike and protested to stop the introduction of a retrogressive labor law that would have given bosses a two-year period for first time hires during which they could fire them with no cause and no grievance procedure.

For the U.S. labor movement, flexibility has meant employers' demands for greater concessions on job titles, overtime rights, seniority, work rules, hours, and job security. This has gone hand-in-hand with the overall decline of unionization, as more and more core industrial sectors of the economy come in competition with non-union companies--both abroad and domestically.

In auto and aerospace, flexibility and layoffs are two sides of the same coin. In 2006, the United Auto Workers negotiated an agreement stating: "The parties agree that a flexible, non-traditional labor force is required to produce the new V6 engine in the Trenton area." Labor Notes magazine reported at the time "This means one with longer work days, less rest time, restricted overtime benefits, and reduced work classifications through outsourcing."

Boeing, which has seen its military sector shrink from over 20,000 in the mid-1990s to 15,000 today, attempted to push the ending of job titles in 2001, in favor of "job families," which would have allowed them to get by with fewer workers spread over more tasks. Members of the International Association of Machinists did vote that contract down, but were later forced to accept some concessions.

But flexibility is not just a problem in manufacturing. In recent attacks, teachers, transit workers and nurses have also come under the gun. Hospital bosses in Burlington, Vt., went as far as to demand that nurses work outside their area of expertise--putting pediatric nurses in the intensive care unit and so on. These insane demands were defeated through a contract campaign and community support.

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CURRENTLY, THE telecommunications giant Verizon is pushing for greater leeway in how to deploy its technicians as it changes over from the original copper plant to fiber optics (known as FiOS, which will provide telephone, cable, and high-speed internet).

Fiber optic requires only a fraction of the maintenance of copper, and therefore only a fraction of the workforce. Technicians are currently being trained to install FiOS, on top of existing copper skills.

Management is intent on using this change in technology to weaken the union's ability to protect the membership. In the 2003 contract, the ironclad job security provision was not extended to new hires. Progressive discipline for productivity was introduced in that contract, and the discipline for unapproved absences was escalated, leading more quickly to suspensions and firings.

In the Queens borough of New York City, members are fighting to maintain a local verbal agreement that protects overtime rights, but Verizon Regional Vice President Tracey Edwards is intent on throwing it in the trash. At the heart of the matter is the ability of management to send splicing technicians to the do the work of repair technicians while repair techs are home on rotating days off.

In February, 17 field technicians in Communications Workers of America Local 1106 were suspended for 30 days without pay for minor infractions like sitting too long in their trucks (during sub-freezing temperatures) or helping other techs on their jobs without getting permission. At a rowdy meeting March 13, members voiced their desire to defend the suspended members and recalled the fighting tradition of CWA against Verizon's predecessor companies in the strikes of '71 and '89.

Management has been able to force flexibility down the throats of union members in a number of places, but there have been significant exceptions, like the Burlington nurses. Hopefully we can draw the line in the sand at Verizon as well, and help turn the tide against the unending greed of Corporate America.

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