Tue, Aug 09, 2011 - Page 10 News List

Verizon unions strike as talks fail

Reuters, NEW YORK

Almost half the workers in Verizon Communications’ wireline telecommunications business went on strike on Sunday as negotiations for a new labor contract failed.

The strike, involving 45,000 workers, is the first walkout that Verizon, one of the two big US telephone network operators, has faced since 2000, when about 80,000 workers went on strike for about three weeks.

Verizon and two unions — the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) — had been in talks since late June, but were still far apart when their contract expired on Saturday night.

The workers who went on strike are technicians and customer support employees in the wireline unit, which provides traditional phone services to homes and businesses in the northeast, as well as high-speed Internet and Fiber Optic Services (FiOS) television service.

The two sides were unable to agree on issues related to healthcare contributions, pension plans and work rules, according to Verizon and the CWA.

Verizon is looking to keep costs in check at its wireline business, which has been declining for a decade as customers have disconnected their home phones in favor of cellphone and Internet services.

A representative for the CWA, which represents about 35,000 of the workers, said bargaining talks were expected to resume on Sunday, while employees were told to start picketing as early as 6am outside their work locations.

“A strike is a hardship for all and not to be undertaken lightly,” Jim Spellane, an IBEW spokesman said in an e-mail.

“I think that the fact that we are on strike instead of finalizing an agreement is a testimony to Verizon’s intransigence throughout the process,” Spellane said.

Michael Paleski, 45, who has worked for Verizon for 23 years, was one among the roughly 250 people gathered in front of Verizon’s Manhattan corporate headquarters, where workers walked in and out of the building to chants of, “Scab! scab! scab!” on megaphones.

The strikers were all dressed in red and had signs that read: “CWA workers on strike for middle-class jobs.”

“Nobody here wants a strike. I’m sure nobody on the other side wants a strike either. But we’re also very disappointed that the company put forward so many demands for givebacks. We feel that’s really the sticking point for us,” Paleski said.

“I have two children. I have a wife, a house and two cars. And things are not cheap these days, they’re getting more expensive for us. And that’s why we need to have the right contract structure,” he said.

Thousands of striking workers were expected to join mass picket lines and rallies at more than 100 Verizon work locations across New York and New Jersey yesterday to pressure the company to back off its demands, the CWA said.

In a letter on Sunday, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam asked the company’s union-represented employees to help on a number of issues to further reduce the company’s wireline cost structure, while maintaining overall compensation and benefits.

The company said late on Saturday night that it had trained tens of thousands of employees, from retirees to management, to fill the role of the workers who are now on strike.

Verizon has 93,000 workers in its wireline business, of whom 58,000 are unionized. Including its Verizon Wireless venture with Vodafone Group PLC, the company’s total workforce is 196,000 employees.

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