Verizon workers strike over right to organize company’s new wireless employees

Verizon workers strike over right to organize company’s new wireless employees

Original Article on Z Magazine

The extraordinary thing about the August telephone workers strike against
Verizon Communications was that 87,000 operators and line technicians refused
to work for 18 days not over the pocketbook issues of wages and benefits,
but over the opportunity to greatly increase the chances of organizing
the company’s non-union wireless workers.

This strike was about the future composition of the union following the
$65 billion merger between Bell Atlantic Corporation and GTE Corporation
that gave birth this summer to Verizon Communications. The Communications
Workers of America (CWA) and the smaller International Brotherhood of Electrical
Workers saw the merger as a critical make or break point in the life of
organized labor in the telecom industry.

Although union jobs comprise about 53 percent of Verizon’s total workforce
of 250,000, most of these positions lie in the company’s traditional fixed-line
telephone business. The new jobs, the jobs tied to wireless and broadband
communications, are found in Verizon Wireless. But of these positions,
about 30,000 and growing, only 50 are unionized. CWA leadership saw this
strike as a chance to target Verizon’s expanding wireless operations. Conversely,
company management hoped to curtail union attempts to bring Verizon Wireless
employees into the fold. For the past few years, Verizon has watched as
AT&T has clamped down on union efforts to organize more of its employees,
currently about 25 percent of the company’s total workforce. The CWA charges
that AT&T regularly violates a 1998 neutrality agreement that calls for
the company to remain impartial while the two unions attempt to organize
AT&T’s non-union employees, once again a group that includes AT&T’s flourishing
wireless division.

The new Verizon is the largest local telephone company in the country with
annual revenues expected to top $65 billion for 2000. Verizon’s cellular
telephone subsidiary, Verizon Wireless, is the largest cellular provider.
(AT&T remains the country’s largest long-distance company).

Entering into negotiations with Verizon, the CWA and the IBEW decided that
rather than attempt to obstruct the advance of new technologies, or defiantly
guard the job security of its current membership—as unions have notoriously
done in the past—the two telecommunications unions focused on securing
a streamlined method for signing up new workers known as the card-check
procedure. (The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Workers (HERE) have used
the card-check process to successfully organize many of the largest hotels
in Las Vegas.)

A relatively new phenomenon in labor organizing, the card-check allows
workers to become union members if a majority of employees at a particular
worksite sign a card indicating that they want to join. The procedure circumvents
the tedious and often losing process of trying to win union recognition
through the slow and overburdened National Labor Relations Board. (The
NLRB acknowledges that one out of every ten workers who tries to organize
is fired; the board has a backlog of 25,000 cases.)

The CWA first won a card- check agreement at SBC Communications in 1996.
Since then, the union increased the percentage of unionized employees at
SBC to 63 percent or 129,600 of 204,500 total workers, giving it the highest
percentage of union employees of any major telecommunications company in
the industry.

Although the CWA and the IBEW would eventually win a 12 percent pay raise
over three years at Verizon, the focus of the negotiations held in Washington
DC was on winning a card-check agreement, something the union had failed
to do two years earlier during a much shorter strike.

The decision to concentrate on future organizing rather than wages and
benefits was a critical break with the past, observed Tom Juravich, director
of the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts
at Amherst. “This victory was an indication of labor’s strategic approach
to organizing,” he said. “We’re not seeing those long drawn out battles
we saw in the 1980s, simply because unions are being a lot wiser. Instead
of striking all the time, and losing, they are being a lot more strategic.”

On the public relations front, the union, representing workers in 11 states
from Maine to Virginia, had the good luck of going out on strike just as
Verizon was launching a multimillion advertising campaign to publicize
the Bell Atlantic-GTE merger. Featuring the omnipresent baritone of actor
James Earl Jones, the ads coached viewers learn how to pronounce the new
name—Ver-EYE-zon —and explain its origin: a combination of horizon and
veritas, the Latin word for truth.

Although company officials insisted that the strike had not taken the punch
out of its advertising campaign, union negotiators felt as though their
position was strengthened by Verizon’s desire not to let the hundreds of
unrepaired phone lines and unattended service orders that had built up
during the walkout sully its new corporate image. “That was a stroke of
strategizing genius,” added Juravich.

At the rank-and-file level, the focus was on winning card-check. Over the
course of the past year, the CWA held a series of educational workshops
to convey to members that although the economy was comparatively strong
and that the Bell Atlantic contract prohibited the company from laying-off
or transferring any worker, the future did not look bright.

The merger with GTE was fast adding jobs to its non-union Cellular and
Internet services subsidiary Verizon Wireless while growth in Verizon’s
fixed-wireline business, or to use industry jargon, Plain Old Telephone
Service (POTS), had been nearly flat. Bob Master, political director of
the CWA’s New York office, recounts that the union took great pains to
emphasize to its members that the Bell Atlantic-GTE merger would likely
accelerate the company’s practice of outsourcing and moving newly created
jobs to non-union areas of the country and the company. Unless steps were
made to organize its cellular subsidiary Verizon Wireless—owned 55 percent
by Verizon and 45 percent by Britain’s Vodafone plc—union members would
see a weakening in their wages and benefits if not the gradual elimination
of their jobs.

“We’re at this moment of transition in the telecommunications industry,”
said Master. “We’re saying that the union has to be a part of the future
here, and that includes wireless, Internet services, high-speed digital
lines, cable-TV—all the stuff that is developing out of the convergence
of telecommunications services.”

Prior to the strike, just 50 out of Verizon Wireless’ 30,000 workers were
organized, the result of a small group of technicians that Bell Atlantic
needed in the mid-1980s when it began its cellular build-up. (Just two
years ago, Bell Atlantic’s wireless operations counted just 7,100 employees.)

To convince workers to go on strike for an issue that did not directly
impact their jobs was seen as a test of leadership’s connection to its
rank-and-file. Master says the union’s directors debated amongst themselves
for over a year about whether the membership could be convinced to strike
in order to win a card-check agreement. “This was a posed as crucial test
of our ability to grow along with the company,” Master adds.

At issue was the future of the telecommunications industry, and what role,
if any, organized labor would play in it. For unions, the cold reality
was that as wireless, Internet, and broadband industries have grown in
the last 15 to 20 years, unions have been slow to organize them. “While
wireless are growing, voice-telephone businesses are either steady or shrinking.
The unions have to go to where the dues paying membership is—it’s a matter
of survival,” observed AT&T spokesperson Burke Stinson.

If they weren’t obvious before the strike, two themes became preeminent
as a result of the walkout: first, that demand for wireless and cellular
services has unequivocally changed the business priorities of the major
telecommunications companies; and secondly, that a decade of multi-billion
dollar mergers had reshaped the companies themselves.

Like all seven former Baby Bells, Verizon grew out of the 1984 break-up
of AT&T Corp. The Supreme Court anti-trust decision broke the telecom monopoly
into seven companies, among them NYNEX and Bell Atlantic. In 1997, those
two companies merged. That consolidation led to others. SBC Communications
bought Pacific Telesis Group, the parent of Pacific Bell, in 1997 for $23.5
billion, and then two years later completed a $62 billion deal for Ameritech
Corp., the former Chicago-based Baby Bell that served much of the Midwest.
(At the time, SBC’s acquisition of Ameritech was the largest telecom deal
ever, since then eclipsed by Verizon’s purchase of GTE).

The merger list goes on. In April, the three-year old broadband Internet
provider, Qwest Communications International Inc., completed its acquisition
of another former Baby Bell, Denver-based US West Corp., for $47.5 billion.
Foreign telecom companies are also getting into the mix, an act of reciprocity
for the many years of U.S. telecom purchases abroad. In July, Deutsche
Telekom announced plans to buy the cellular provider VoiceStream Wireless
Corp. for $50.3 billion, and in August Japan’s NTT Communications, completed
its $5 billion purchase of the U.S. Internet server, Verio Inc.

In many cases, older telecom companies with unionized work- forces have
purchased non-union newer companies. And with each merger, the unionized
companies have tried to leverage the increase in employees to dilute the
union’s presence and influence.

Verizon’s purchase of GTE was such a case. “The slew of mergers and acquisitions
have clearly awoken workers to the realization that although the economy
may be good for the moment, another round of corporate mergers, and job
elimination is likely,” said UMass’ Juravich. In early-September, Qwest
announced it would eliminate more than 13,000 jobs as part of its acquisition
of US West.

Verizon’s union contract forbids layoffs, a reality that came as a some
surprise to those in the press. In fact, the decision by the CWA and IBEW
to strike against Verizon was greeted by some in the press as the curious grumb- lings of workers that had chosen not to embrace the potential of
the so-called New Economy.

The Industry Standard declared in its August 14 issue that “a labor dispute
might seem out of place in the Internet Economy, where most employers worry
more about filling jobs than about fending off union organizers.” A leading
voice of the Internet business community, the magazine added that “despite
the booming economy, unionized workers are concerned they’re being denied
their piece of the new-economy pie.”

Prior to the start of the strike, the New York Times portrayed the conflict
as one that “pits old-line labor against the New Economy.” After an accord
was reached, the newspaper seemed obliged to acknowledge that “organized
labor still has a place in the New Economy.”

All the talk of New Economy versus Old Economy riled CWA organizer Steve
Early. The newer jobs in the communications industry, he argued, are much
the same as the old ones. They both require a sales force, technicians,
and maintenance personnel.

“The only thing that distinguishes the workers in this so-called New Economy
is the fact that the new workforce in the new economy side is treated shabbily,”
he said. “The people have no rights, they have no grievance procedure,
they have minimal benefit coverage compared to the traditional benefit
package. They don’t have guaranteed across-the- board increases, they don’t
have any number of things that are standard parts of a contract that’s
been built up over 30 or 40 years bargaining. And the working conditions
don’t smack of anything new. They smack of the conditions that existed
in factories before the eight-hour-day and the 40-hour-week was won.”

Indeed much of the telecommunications industry remains unorganized. Around
the Washington DC offices of the Communications Workers of America, Debbie
Goldman and her co-workers among the union’s research staff refer to a
particularly bad moment in the CWA’s recent organizing history as the “Christmas

That was the day back in 1987 when officials of the long-distance telephone
company MCI Corp. fired a couple of hundred workers at a call center outside
of Detroit which was in the beginning stages of a union drive. “They plain
fired everybody,” Goldman recalled. “Just a few days before Christmas.”

The CWA had a similar experience with Sprint Corp. in 1994 after working
with a group of employees at one of its San Francisco telemarketing centers
geared specifically to Spanish speaking customers. One week before the
company had agreed to hold an NLRB election on union representation, the
employees were told by Sprint that the center was being shut down, and
that the workers were out of job.

This time, however, the union filed a grievance with the NLRB which in
typical fashion dragged on for nearly four years until the board cited
Sprint for more than 50 labor law violations that included intimidation,
using employees to disseminate information, and threatening to fire employees.
“That’s the pattern of those two companies,” Goldman added. “They will
aggressively fight and even break the law in order to keep a union out
and they’ve been very successful as a result. So we have made very little

A Sprint spokesperson, Mark Bonavia, said company employees have chosen
not to unionize because they are largely pleased with working conditions.
“People unionize because they’re getting crappy benefits,” he said. “We
offer our employees good benefits and wage packages; then again, if they
want to unionize they can, we won’t stand in the way.”

Today, unionized employees at Sprint comprise just 12.5 percent of its
77,600 employees. WorldCom, which purchased MCI in 1998, has managed to
block any and all union organizing campaigns. Not surprisingly, WorldCom
chose Sprint for a merger partner in a $129 billion deal that regulators
shot down in June on anti-trust grounds.

At Verizon, the card-check agreement does not go into effect for six months.
As a result, the company, says Master, has begun a campaign to press its
non-union wireless workers to resist the approaches of union organizers.
AT&T is doing the same at its call stations in the south and southwest.
Company spokesman Steven Marcus said Verizon is committed to abiding by
the contract.

The CWA, meanwhile, is gearing up for a largescale organizing blitz for
the winter and spring. The first target is Verizon’s wireless workers,
and later, GTE’s non-unionized employees. Further afield, the union would
like to bring former Ameritech workers, now employed by SBC, into the union.

“We’re going to have to go out and win the same kind of card check and
neutrality agreement that we have for wireless in the rest of the former
GTE areas as those contracts come up in the next few years,” Early said.
“Ultimately, we need a national contract, and we can only get there by
organizing the unorganized in wireless.”