A major labor struggle is now under way in the eastern U.S., pitting 60,000 members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and 26,000 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) against the communications industry giant, Verizon Communications Inc.

The parties are trying to hammer out regional and local agreements covering workers in 13 New England and mid-Atlantic states. With the present contract expiring Aug. 2, union leaders report over 90 percent of workers across the region voting in favor of strike authorization.

Negotiations began in June in an atmosphere colored by the December 2002 layoff of thousands of workers in what was described by the company as “an effort to remain competitive.” But on July 11 an arbitrator ruled that the December layoffs violated the job security stipulations of the existing contract and ordered Verizon to put 2,300 CWA members back on the job.

CWA District 1 Vice President Larry Mancino hailed the ruling, saying that it would give the reinstated workers “their lives back.” Stunned Verizon negotiators canceled the day’s bargaining sessions. IBEW spokesman Jim Spellane told the World that 1,100 of that union’s members will also be called back as a result of the arbitration decision. Significantly, one of the givebacks demanded by management in the present negotiations is elimination of this recourse to arbitration.

Going into the negotiations, Verizon management said its goal was to “become a smaller company,” and spoke of the need to have “flexibility to adjust our workforce” as well as “work rule flexibility.”

The feeling among workers is that Verizon management wants them to pay for management’s mistakes. Early in the negotiations, CWA District 13 Vice President Larry Maisano told management, “Our members are not going to pay for your mismanagement.”

As in many recent labor negotiations, health care is a major issue. The unions won non-contributory health coverage in 1970, but management is now proposing to cut benefits and require premium payments from workers. Verizon is also demanding the elimination of both the limits on forced overtime and the job security provisions that were won in the 2000 contract. In addition, the company is seeking givebacks in disability, family care and training for advancement.

The unions are seeking not only to protect past gains, but also to limit sub-contracting and to lower barriers to organizing in areas of new technology, such as the company’s wireless and internet service divisions.

Verizon is the largest provider of communications services in the U.S. In 2002, its net profits were over $4 billion despite $12 billion lost in “bad investments.” Nine top Verizon executives made over $395 million in compensation over the past five years.

The CWA has 700,000 members, mainly in communications-related industries, and the IBEW has 95,000 of its 775,000 members in telecommunications.

The author can be reached at gamoo@compuserve.com