Concessions mar Verizon deal

August 12, 2008

A Verizon worker assesses the tentative contract agreement announced by the unions this weekend.

NEW YORK--After working eight days without a contract, and hours before a second strike deadline was to expire, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) announced a tentative agreement with telecommunications giant Verizon.

The new contract, covering 70,000 workers on the East Coast, preserves the current 100 percent-paid health care coverage for all employees, including new hires. Other strong points in the contract include raises of 3.25, 3.5 and 3.75 percent (plus half of the estimated COLA in the final year of the contract), for a total of almost 11 percent compounded over the life of the contract. Similar increases were also granted to current retirees.

However, the contract is marred by givebacks by particular segments of the workforce, and details are vague or unavailable on contracting out future work and other issues.

The contract was negotiated under the shadow of a major new expansion of Verizon's FiOS (fiber optic system), delivering cable television, dial tone and high-speed Internet to the five boroughs of New York City. The franchise agreement with the city requires the company to complete the build-out by 2014, which gave the unions unusual leverage at a time that the labor movement has been under pressure generally.

Interior of a Verizon truck
Interior of a Verizon truck

However, weak mobilizations in the past year indicated the unions weren't prepared to risk a confrontation with the company. The unions even participated in lobbying to get Verizon access to New York City, in hopes of an easier time at the negotiating table. Even the small concessions in the contract are unnecessary, given the recognition among the workforce that this is the company's most vulnerable time.

The membership was largely left on the sidelines during the negotiating process, and an opportunity was missed to reenergize and educate the membership. We have suffered through five years of the company eroding quality of life on the job, including changes to the sick leave policy, leading to suspensions and firings.

In a surprise move, the company agreed to recognize 600 employees in Verizon Business (covering large business services, formerly MCI) as part of the union. This sweetener, however, creates a separate job title for these technicians, along with separate work rules and wage scales. The new job title will make it more difficult for current techs to transfer into this work.

These employees won't share the automatic double-time for work on Sunday, only receiving time-and-a-half--and Sunday assignments will be a regular part of the workweek.

In addition, the company agreed to give permanent positions to 1,200 temp workers, thus making them part of the union.

While increasing the union membership is an excellent step forward, the company is currently 70 percent nonunion, a reversal of union density in under 10 years. Verizon Wireless, which is responsible for a much greater share of revenue and customers than the landline section, has only 50 out of 50,000 employees unionized--despite a card-check agreement from the 2000 strike.

The CWA has been part of a high-profile campaign to get the Employee Free Choice Act passed by Congress and has been expending a lot of funds and energy on Democratic Party candidates. It also negotiated a $2 million fund from the company to work on national health care reform.

While the reforms would be a welcome change in a country with regressive labor laws and no welfare state to speak of, the unions' strategy is to replace workplace struggle with lobbying, further cutting the membership out of any active role.

THE UNIONS and company agreed to meet to discuss contracting of work three times a year during the life of the contract, but there are no clear details about outsourcing. The old contract allowed total freedom to hire contractors so long as there were no layoffs of union members. However, the company has every incentive to wage a war of attrition on union members, driving us into early retirement and incrementally replacing us with contractors.

The local leadership hasn't clarified what the company agreed to in this contract; union meetings in the coming weeks will revolve around the future of our work, particularly as the company embarks on new types of operations servicing video and online products offered with FiOS.

The most clear-cut giveback involved health care after retirement for new hires. Currently, retirees receive the same coverage as active employees. New hires will instead have a fixed benefit based on the number of years of service in the company. The last contract included a similar giveback for new hires: removing the iron-clad job security provision--which begs the question of how many new hires will even reach retirement age in the company.

Verizon is making inroads into the quality of the job; eventually, it hopes to bring down the level of the union members to that of the at-will employees paying for their own health care in Wireless. Each small concession brings that reality closer, even if it isn't happening as fast as management would like.

Many members have expressed dissatisfaction with this deal and see the writing on the wall. Unlike the 2003 contract, there is more vocal opposition, even from some stewards.

How hard of a sell the local leaders will make has yet to be seen, but it is likely they will argue that this is the best that could be won at the table, and it wouldn't be worth striking over the small improvements we might get by walking out. Members are confused that a "no" vote will automatically mean a strike (which it doesn't), and there is no clear strategy to move forward.

All along, the union has seemed unwilling to embark on a strike, perhaps fearing a long, drawn-out battle that will drain the union's coffers. The priority needs to be holding the line and reversing the trend of accepting piecemeal concessions. The strike fund isn't a pool for investment; it's our war chest.

Instead of wasting money on lobbying, the union should have been building momentum for a strike with a clear message: no concessions for any Verizon workers, past, present or future. We should vote no and hold out for a just contract for all union members.

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