Thousands of striking Verizon workers will return to work starting tonight, though their contract dispute with the telecom company is not over yet.
Both the company and the union say they have agreed to narrow the issues in dispute and have set up a process to negotiate a new contract.
However, the talks are likely to be contentious as the two sides still disagree on such sensitive issues as health care benefits, pensions and work rules.
About 45,000 employees went on strike on Aug. 7, after their previous contract expired. They work in the company’s landline division in nine states from Massachusetts to Virginia.
Verizon says that it needs to cut costs in the traditional landline phone business, which is in decline as more Americans switch to mobile phones. The company has proposed freezing its pension plan and switching union workers to its non-union health plan, which has higher costs for employees.
The unions counter that the landline business supports the growing wireless business and that Verizon, which earned about US$3 billion in the first half of the year, can afford to maintain the benefits in the contract that expired on Aug. 6.
Of the 45,000 striking workers, 35,000 belong to the Communications Workers of America, while 10,000 to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).
The strike occurred because Verizon “came in with an extreme set of proposals and never really moved off of them,” IBEW spokesman Jim Spellane said.
However, after the 14-day strike, “I think they realized the unions are serious. It’s in everybody’s best interest to get back to work,” he said.
Verizon spokesman Richard Young said that many of the benefits and work rules were put in place when Verizon faced much less competition in its landline business.
Verizon has 196,000 workers, with 135,000 of those non-union. The wireless division, which was not affected by the strike, is mostly non-union.
Nearly 30 percent of US homes have dropped landline phone service and rely on mobile phones only, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Verizon Wireless added 1.3 million wireless customers in the second quarter, for a total of 89.7 million. That growth was helped by the addition of Apple Inc’s iPhone in February.