What's at stake in the Verizon contract?

A Verizon worker looks at the issues as negotiations get underway.

THE COMING contract fight at Verizon embodies many of the key issues facing a labor movement that has struggled just to tread water against vicious anti-union tactics.

The company is currently in the midst of at $26 billion build-out of a new fiber-optic system to replace its aging copper network. The new network will be able to supply phone, high-speed Internet and cable television.

This has allowed Verizon to sell off their copper plant in New England, leaving thousands of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) members facing the possibility of the termination of collective bargaining when their contract runs out.

What's more, the fiber system is projected to need only a fraction of the maintenance of the existing copper wiring. What will happen to the remaining techs is unclear, but the company has been issuing repeated buyout offers to "painlessly" shrink the workforce.

In early bargaining, the company demanded changes to every aspect of our health care plan, which is currently 100 percent paid for by the company (a benefit that only 6 percent of American workers enjoy).

The Communications Workers of America (CWA), Verizon's main union, walked out of negotiations, knowing the members would be outraged at even entertaining such drastic concessions. But the logic of "why should we get something no one else has?" creates a tremendous pressure to accept some kind of cost shifting.

Last year, the company froze management's pensions and moved to only providing 401(k) accounts, an indication that they will be asking for the same from unionized workers. They also imposed a new, accelerated discipline plan for absence control, which led to firings in the first year it was in place.

While the number of union members (55,000 CWA and 10,000 IBEW) has declined slightly through attrition, the proportion of Verizon's overall workforce that is unionized has plummeted to 30 percent, owing to the explosion of wireless service and the purchase of sections of MCI, which now make up Verizon Business Services (VZB).

But workers at VZB have made it clear they don't see themselves as scabs. The majority has signed union cards, but the company refuses to recognize their right to organize. Union lawyers are preparing for hearings this summer to decide if the 30,000 former MCI employees should automatically be part of the bargaining unit by virtue of the type of work that they do, as they fit in existing job categories and do identical work.

At a recent meeting of CWA Local 1106 in Queens, New York, regional CWA official Lisa Reardon explained how the company is taking a "throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach."

How much this represents a real threat in terms of the company gearing up for a strike, and how much is posturing, is still to be seen. But the balance of forces definitely favors management, which has pressed its advantage during the five years of the current contract.

Besides imposing changes to the absence control plan and refusing to honor card check at VZB, management has increased surveillance of members who are out on disability, firing those they deem to be abusing the system. In response, the union has largely taken a legal approach, substituting lawsuits and arbitration for resistance in the workplace. The tragedy is that for the terminated workers, the damage is already done, and winning back jobs or lost pay takes two to three years.

This adds to the impression that management can get away with whatever it wants. And the CWA appears to be on the defensive, having announced that the union is willing to work without a contract months before it expires.

The wild card in the coming negotiations is whether the company is willing to risk a strike that would interrupt the build-out of the fiber plant. But if the company chooses not to force a full-on confrontation, it will merely be a postponement of a key battle around health care and pensions.

Yet we also need to recognize that fighting just for our own pay and benefits package--without taking on the struggle to organize our brothers and sisters--is a dead-end strategy. Even if the next Congress passes a bill guaranteeing card check, there is no substitute for a mobilized membership.