Unions Gear Up for Showdown at Verizon

Health care isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. At least it seems that way right now, as workers in every industry are struggling to maintain their benefits in the face of rising premiums and diminished services.

When contract negotiations between Verizon and its 75,000 union workers in the Northeast began on June 23, the company made it clear that making employees pay more for their health insurance was its top priority. Among Verizon’s proposals were increased co-pays, cuts in spousal and family benefits, and the elimination of paid sick days for new hires.

The Communication Workers (CWA) and Electrical Workers (IBEW) have said they will not accept increased health care costs, setting the stage for a battle with major implications when their contract expires August 2.


Verizon’s workers have displayed a willingness to strike, walking out and winning in 1989 (when the company name was NYNEX and health care costs was the key issue), in 1998 (when the company was Bell Atlantic), and again in 2000.

Already, nearly 150 telephone workers with CWA Local 3673 in western North Carolina are on strike against Verizon, with cuts in disability benefits and sick leave being two major sticking points in negotiations.

Brian Rowland, one of the strikers from Local 3673 who have been on the line since May 19, headed up to the Northeast to meet and strategize with Verizon’s Northeast workers in July.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” says Rowland of Verizon’s demands in North Carolina. According to Rowland, Verizon has not demanded similar concessions from workers in other parts of the South. “[Verizon] intentionally put us out on the street. They’re trying to send these guys (Verizon’s Northeast workers) a message that they mean business.”

Rowland told his story at rallies and meetings in the Northeast, describing the North Carolina strike (where all 150 workers have held the line) and Verizon’s aggressive tactics.

“The members are getting fired up,” says Don Trementozzi, president of CWA Local 1400 in northern New England. “We’ve had membership meetings in Burlington, Portland…had a rally in Braintree (Massachusetts), another rally the day of the [Verizon] shareholders meeting.”

At CWA Local 1023 in New Jersey, local President Linda Kramer has been involved in “lunchroom discussions” around key contract issues, as well as “practice picketing” during workers’ lunch hours. To protest Verizon’s proposed health care cuts, all the workers from one New Jersey call center “wore band-aids [to work] and some people brought crutches.”

The Black Telephone Workers for Justice, a group of rank-and-file Verizon workers formed after the 2000 strike, have held rallies in New Jersey linking the contract battle with the struggle to have Verizon recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday.

According to IBEW member and BTWFJ President Ron Washington, the rallies have been “very spirited,” drawing as many as 1,000 people.

Retirees are also gearing up for the deadline. At a July 1 rally on Long Island, more than 600 Verizon retirees and active members came out in a display of union solidarity and displeasure with Verizon’s proposals.

According to Ed Creegan, a retiree activist and former CWA local president, the rally was “unbelievable…very militant…everybody was standing and cheeringpeople showed they are ready to do battle.”

“Retirees have had our pensions frozen for thirteen years,” adds Creegan. “Now they want a substantial increase in our health care costs.”




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While Verizon has reportedly maintained a “poker face” when presented with union demands, they are preparing an all-out public relations blitz.

In a company memorandum describing Verizon’s strategy, PR strategist Jerry Manheim suggests that Verizon compose a narrative for public consumption that “establishes the moral high ground and the company’s claim to it.” The point is to shape “the ‘reality’ to which journalists, political leaders and the union itself must respond.”

Verizon’s sample narrative reads in part:

“There was a time not long ago-in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks-when CWA members were genuine heroes, and when Verizon was proud to support their endeavors. But the spirit of cooperation born of that tragic time has dissipated…because of the failure of leadership within the CWA.”

This is not the only way Verizon plans to make use of the September 11 attacks. Looking back to the 2000 strike, when rank-and-file workers used militant tactics such as cutting telephone wires and cables to wreak havoc with the company, Verizon is preparing to “educate police/public about the effect of sabotage on…terrorism [and the] critical infrastructure of [the] nation.”

In the event of a strike, Verizon also plans to “greatly enhance security force and efforts,” pushing for “aggressive policing at picket sites.”

On another front of the PR war, Verizon has been training its lower-level managers in the art of spin. Kramer reports that at one New Jersey call center, “[Verizon] had all the managers come in and gave them a three-hour course on how to justify management’s pay to the employees.”

Kramer believes that the educational work unions are doing may be an effective counter to Verizon’s spin. “The members understand how wealthy the company is,” says Kramer. “Last year Verizon made $4.9 billion in profits…they’re making the lion’s share and keeping it for themselves.”

Job security is another major issue at the bargaining table. Verizon is demanding the flexibility to contract out any work not covered under the current contract, as well as the right to transfer up to 8% of its Northeast work out of the region each year.


According to Kramer, “[Verizon] wants to ship jobs out West and down South, where it’s right-to-work and the jobs pay significantly less. They’ve already got call centers in India where they’re paying them $400 per month.”

Verizon is pushing for other concessions as well, ranging from eliminating pensions for new hires to scrapping tuition assistance.

With such a comprehensive list of concession demands, combined with a healthy profit margin, CWA Legislative and Political Director Bob Master believes that Verizon “is a worthy poster child for corporate greed.”

Master hopes the unions can use the issues of health care and corporate greed to drum up public support for the workers. “We believe this strike would be important not just for our members,” he says, “but for the labor movement as a whole.”

As it stands now, a strike seems likely. Trementozzi sees the unions and the company as “miles apart” and Kramer believes that the fight “is going to be ugly.”

In his speech at the July 1 rally, Creegan told the crowd, “When CWA became our bargaining agent, our wages were low and we had no medical or dental plans. It is only because of our union that we have the best medical coverage and wages in the industry. But nothing was achieved through reason, only through many bitter battles.”