Striking for the Future of Labor

The strike by 87,000 Verizon workers against the giant telecom company was a battle over the new economy. While many of the issues in the 18-day strike were reminiscent of early labor battles -- strikers wanted control of their schedules and over working conditions -- much more was at stake. Verizon workers hit the picket lines in an effort to safeguard their job security and ensure that workers in the new economy would have the right to join unions.

Verizon -- formed following the mergers of Bell Atlantic, Nynex and GTE -- had consistently said during negotiations that unionization would make the telecom firm less flexible and therefore less able to compete with new, start-up wireless competitors that are almost all nonunion. The competitive nature of the industry, the company said, forced it to take care of its employees and provide them with good wages and benefits.

The union -- the Communications Workers of America -- was concerned that the changing face of the communications industry -- and Verizon itself -- would lead to reduced job security and make it more difficult to unionize workers at the firm, leaving them to the unpredictable changes of the market.

In addition, the union understands that if it plans to organize at the start-up firms, it has to maintain and then build upon its base with the larger telecom companies. The Washington Post said that "the upcoming push to organize wireless workers is being described by many analysts as a fight by labor to gain a foothold in the 'new economy.' The outcome will be closely watched as a sign of labor's ability to organize new-century workers."

CWA spokesman Jeff Miller told the Post there are about 60,000 wireless workers eligible to join the union in the companies it represents. He said "We'll start out with that base."

The Post said the "CWA is counting on workers in the new wireless field wanting the same contract protections as workers on the wire side of the telephone business."

"The field is considered high-tech, but the skills aren't any different," Miller told the Post.

That's why a change in the union election process was among the key demands of Verizon workers. Verizon has agreed to allow card-check recognition for union organizing drives at the telecom company's wireless division. The new process is much easier than the standard - and more cumbersome -- route of seeking certification through a full election from the National Labor Relations Board. Under the new contract, the company has agreed to recognize the union as a collective bargaining unit for previously unrepresentative workers after 55% of the workers in a new bargaining unit sign union authorization cards showing they want representation. A quick election, supervised by an independent arbitrator, would verify the cards.

In addition, Verizon has agreed to remain neutral during any organizing campaigns. While the company will be allowed to tell workers why it believes a union is not needed, it cannot actively discourage union membership

The agreements are important because company interference in the process and worker dissatisfaction with the pace of unionization are two of the top problems labor unions face.

The union also won a major victory in terms of job security, restricting the amount of work the company can move to nonunion shops, limits subcontracting and guarantees some jobs will be performed by union members.

Under the contract:

* The amount of work that can be moved from region to region is limited to no more than 0.7% of jobs per year. The union had feared that Verizon would shift work to areas of cheaper labor within its recently expanded territories.

* Verizon guaranteed there would be no layoffs, no downgrades and no forced transfer of workers;

* Verizon will cut the amount of work it subcontracts; ¨ The company assures that union members will perform all installation and maintenance work involving the new high-speed DSL links to the Internet;

* Verizon will restore to union workers a substantial amount of DSL and other customer service work that had been contracted out; ¨ And the company will return maintenance work that has been performed by a lower wage subsidiary to union workers.

The agreement also grants 12% wage hikes over three years and reduces the amount of forced overtime customer service workers and technicians would have to work. Customer service employees, who now work as much as 15 hours per week of forced overtime, can now be forced to work no more than 7-1/2 hours and the company will have to give workers at least 2-1/2 hours' notice that overtime work is required. Mandatory overtime for technicians and operators, who also currently can be forced to work up to 15 overtime hours a week, will be capped at 10 hours a week immediately and will be further cut to 8 hours in January 2001.

The settlement calls for customer service employees to receive 30 minutes of off-line time per shift in which workers can be off the phones to process customer orders and requests. And it includes provisions to relieve the intensity of monitoring for both operators and service reps.

All told, the union made out well. But now it must translate the provisions of the new contract into real gains in the workplaces of the new economy. Its future -- and the future of the labor movement -- could depend upon it.

Hank Kalet lives in New Jersey. He is a poet and managing editor of The South Brunswick Post and Cranbury Press. He can be reached via e-mail at

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