Verizon unions claim victory on security

The five-year agreements signed Sept. 5 between Verizon Communications and its workers’ two unions, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) was hailed by both unions as a victory in tough times. Seventy-nine thousand workers in the company’s “core” business – land lines and residential service – in the northeastern United States are covered by the contracts.

Claiming that the industry is changing and its core business shrinking, Verizon, the telecommunications industry’s profit leader, had been looking for major concessions including big co-pays in insurance premiums and changes in contract language that would allow layoffs and the freedom to move union jobs to other regions. But neither workers nor retirees will pay health care premiums under the new accord, although in some cases employed spouses will pay a $40 monthly premium. The contract’s job security provision, which led to an arbitrator ordering the reinstatement of 3,200 laid off workers last July, was retained.

The CWA, which represents the bulk of the company’s union membership, said that key to its success were intensive on-the-job worker mobilizations throughout August as well as the launch and progressive implementation of a “Community Strike Against Corporate Greed.” The community strike, supported by New York Jobs with Justice, was the first stage of an economic boycott against Verizon, which asked customers to sign a card pledging that they would switch their phone service to another unionized carrier in the event that contract negotiations broke down.

Union activists expressed concern that the new contract’s job security provisions do not apply to the several thousand workers expected to be hired over the next five years, replacing unionized workers encouraged to retire by an aggressive buy-out program.

In other contract provisions, unionized employees will receive annual 2 percent pay raises and cost-of-living increases in the final four years of the contract. A one-time payment averaging $1,600 per worker will be made in lieu of a first year wage increase, but will not be rolled into the workers’ base pay. Under the old contract, salaries for the Verizon operator and technicians were in the range of $45,000 to $60,000, according to a report in the New York Times.

The significance of a separate agreement signed between CWA and Verizon Wireless, the number one retailer in local and wireless services and a 55 percent Verizon-owned enterprise, goes far beyond the 51 members it covers. The contract’s guarantee of seniority rights for the wireless workers will be an important tool for the union in its on-going organizing campaigns in this almost totally unorganized sector of the telecommunications industry.