In what is quickly becoming a war of words between both sides, Verizon Communications and Fios employees are on the verge of a strike.
The company says it is seeking health care givebacks to account for the changing face of the telecommunications industry as more consumers go wireless. But union officials say Verizon has plenty of money and are only attacking middle class jobs.
Verizon employees who work on the wire lines, represented by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, have voted to allow union leaders to authorize a strike as soon as the current contract expires at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. A decision to call a strike would impact 45,000 landline Verizon workers from Massachusetts to Virginia. Wireless locations would not be affected.
“This is definitely a tactic in our arsenal,” said CWA spokesman Bob Master of New York who is handling the matter in the Northeast. “We have distributed picket signs from Massachusetts to Virginia.”
Labor and management have each blamed the other for what has brought the company to the brink of its first strike since 2000. Verizon is claiming that the union is not agreeing to a $100 per month employee contribution to health care. Employees were not required to pay health care contributions before. The union is saying, however, that Verizon wants to cut employee pensions and health care benefits, along with capping sick time at five days per person and instituting merit pay.
“What we’re seeing is a sweeping attack on middle class jobs at Verizon,” Master said.
Verizon spokesman John Bonamo disagrees, noting that Verizon pays each of the workers on average $75,000 with a $50,000 benefits package. He did not offer verification for these figures.
“That is a pretty solid middle class job and we want to keep those middle class jobs,” he said. “Those build communities.”
Bonamo said the company is centered on having the $100 a month health care payment put into place. He said that the company has been spending $4 billion a year – or $400,000 an hour – on health care costs in recent years. He also said the company’s other 135,000 employees contribute to their health care costs. He would not disclose how much Verizon Wireless and other Verizon employees not covered in a union pay for health care.
Bonamo said the decision to seek health care givebacks centers on the changing face of the telecommunications industry.
“More and more people are going to wireless or getting their telecomm services from other providers,” Bonamo said. “These kind of changes in our business require us and the unions to make some tough choices.”
Master on the other hand painted a picture of a corporate empire that is focused on profits and large executive compensation packages at the expense of workers. He said that Verizon has made $22.5 billion in the last four years and has spent millions on compensation for the top five executives.
He also blamed Verizon for outsourcing wire line jobs to Mexico and India and laying off U.S. workers.
Master said that the union is seeking concessions from management to limit outsourcing, along with keeping pensions and benefits intact. He also said the unions would like to see Verizon bring back outsourced jobs to the United States.
Bonamo declined to detail the exact plans that Verizon is offering at the bargaining table. He also declined to go into the specifics of the company’s health care plans and to answer the accusations from Master.
“I realize that is what they are saying and some may be true, but we are not going to get into the details of the proposals,” he said. “We have a contract proposal that we believe is fair and reasonable. It is comparable to the companies we compete with. That’s the best measure.”
Bonamo said that Verizon is preparing contingency plans in the event of a strike. He declined to discuss the specifics of the plans, but noted they will allow for wire repair, Fios services and operators to be in place in the event the union leaders authorize the strike.
“It is up to the unions to decide if they want to inconvenience our customers,” he said.
Bonamo did not know the number of customers who could be affected.
Master said that the union does not believe a strike would have an impact on public perception, noting that a recent poll the union conducted told leaders that the public would support a strike.
“We just polled the public from Massachusetts to Virginia and the public clearly understands that if there is a strike that is a greedy company that is trying to do away with middle class jobs at a time they themselves are making tens of millions in profit. I don’t see a backlash. The public understands that workers do not take lightly the risk of a strike. It is a risky and dangerous thing to do.”
The last Verizon strike in 2000 lasted 15 days. In 1989, the company’s strike lasted 17 weeks. A 1971 strike involved AT&T prior to the divestiture lasted seven months.
Master stressed that no final decision has been made on the part of union leaders on whether a strike would occur. He said it is possible a strike could occur sometime after the contract expires on Sunday.
“Our leadership may decide that the beginning of August is not the best time for a strike,” he said.