Talks continue at Verizon
85,000 employees on strike; new contract may take additional time
NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Negotiations between Verizon Communications and unions representing some 85,000 of its workers continued late Sunday after the company's telephone operators and line technicians walked off the job without a new contract. Both sides indicated that progress was being made toward reaching an accord, though perhaps not as quickly as first thought.|
"We believe we reached a good general framework for obtaining a contract, but right now we're down to the wire," Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe told reporters in a conference call at 4:30 p.m. ET Sunday. "I'm still optimistic that we'll get it done in a few days but I'm not sure we'll get it done today."
Negotiations were ongoing at 10 p.m. ET Sunday and were likely to continue for "at least a few more hours" before breaking for the night, said Verizon spokesman Steve Marcus.
The Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers - two unions representing about 33 percent of Verizon's work force - said the company made a last-minute contract offer that responded to many of the workers' concerns about more money and benefits, improved job security and restrictions on the amount of forced-overtime employees must work.
But that offer came just short of the 12:01 a.m. ET Sunday strike deadline, prompting workers at the company's various headquarters in 12 states and the District of Columbia to walk away from their posts. As workers walked off the job, Verizon managers stepped in to take over their responsibilities. Overall, some 30,000 Verizon managers are expected to step in and monitor the network should the strike continue and more workers walk out.
"It's difficult to say which way things will go but both sides are committed to reaching an agreement," Marcus said.
Some service disruptions
Negotiators in Washington, D.C. worked on the new contract until 3:30 a.m. ET Sunday morning, when they called a recess. They picked up their efforts later Sunday morning, with discussions continuing through the day.
"We're looking forward to nailing down the details as quickly as we can," Rabe said. "We'll continue to talk until people collapse and even then we could talk in our sleep if we have to."
Rabe said that he had received some reports of telephone line outages in the Bronx region of New York City and along the Eastern shoreline of New Jersey. While the disruptions were not directly related to the strike action, Rabe said that Verizon's ability to respond to them was being hampered by the lack of their own technicians and other workers on the job.
"That's exactly the kind of problem we're facing in this kind of situation," he said. "It's going to be hard for us to maintain the kind of service levels we normally have and that our customers are used to." He declined to comment on what the additional costs of the strike might add up to for the company.
Emergency services such as 911 were not expected to be affected by the walkout because much of Verizon's network is automated. The New York-based company has more than 95 million telephone lines and 260,000 employees. It also has more than 26 million mobile-phone customers.
What city, please?
But there were reports of some Verizon customers in the Washington area that did have difficulty getting through to 411 -- the three-digit information service Verizon provides to its customers. "I'm sure there have been cases of that and I'm sure it will get worse tomorrow as normal business volumes build up," Rabe said.
Several issues between union members and the company have been essentially resolved, particularly in the area of "stress in the workplace," where telephone operators and customer services representatives were not being provided with adequate breaks during shifts, according to both sides.
In addition, wage increases of between 3 percent and 4 percent have largely been agreed upon, though agreement on those issues could change in response to concessions on other concerns. "We have seen some positive movement on some of the issues, but this is a situation with a lot of moving parts," Rabe said. "Those issues could change as we move to other issues."
Unions looking at wireless
Still on the negotiating table, however, is the issue of employees at Verizon Wireless, most of whom do not currently have union representation.
Union members are arguing that the 30,000 employees who work at Verizon Wireless, most of whom are not unionized, also be extended the benefits of union representation before they sign a new contract deal with Verizon.
Verizon had been insisting that it only deal with a contract for its own employees and allow workers at the wireless company to make their own decision about whether or not to lobby for and accept union representation. However, Rabe said that talks about unionizing the wireless workers were still taking place, albeit at a separate table from the regular negotiations.
Jeff Miller with the CWA, which represents some 72,000 Verizon employees, said earlier this week that differences in wages and benefits between union and nonunion workers are significant. He said the pay scale for union-covered service representatives tops out at $44,400 a year, while workers doing similar jobs in the wireless operation make only $33,000.
Any concessions the unions may win on organizing Verizon's wireless employees could have major implications throughout the wireless telephone industry, which is largely staffed by nonunion workers. Labor unions may press for similar rights at other wireless companies, which could increase the labor costs and complicate work transfers, according to analysts.
Possible spillover effect
Verizon owns 55 percent of Verizon Wireless in an alliance with Britain's Vodafone Group Plc (VOD: Research, Estimates) and has a managing partnership over it. It is the largest wireless company in the United States, with more than 26 million subscribers. It is also slated to become a publicly traded company in the fall.
Union officials are also trying to reach agreements on reducing forced overtime for telephone operators and customer service representatives and on limiting the movement of jobs as a result of the merger. Verizon is the new name of the company formed when Bell Atlantic took over GTE Corp. in June.
While the GTE part of the company is not involved in these contract talks, a strike might spill over and prompt walkouts by 1,200 GTE telephone workers in Lexington, Ky., and Monroe and western North Carolina, where separate contracts have already expired, the union said.
The CWA says it wants a shorter contract so it won't be locked into a five-year pact at a time of constant change and consolidation in the telecommunications industry, Miller said. It also wants an opportunity to provide employees of Verizon Wireless with its representation, and wants that to be negotiable within a shorter time frame.
Picketing picks up
Even with the strike, residential and business customers should continue to have a dial tone, barring any unusual circumstances, Rabe said. Managers have already been prepped on how to monitor the network and dispatch repairs for urgent problems. There might be additional disruptions, however, in directory assistance calls, as well as delays in customer service, billing, line repairs and new line installations, he said.
As company and union negotiators remained holed up at the Loews L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, union workers took to picketing Verizon's various local headquarters and call centers up and down the Northeast.
In Philadelphia, picketers wearing red t-shirts in support of their union blocked managers from getting into both Verizon's head office and its operator and switching center. The workers eventually were able to enter the building. In other cities, union workers did the same, though there were no reports of clashes between workers and managers.
About 150 workers also gathered outside a Verizon building in Syracuse, N.Y., and several hundred employees showed up to picket Verizon's downtown Boston offices. Verizon serves customers in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, along with the District of Columbia.
Shares of Verizon (VZ: Research, Estimates) fell 1-1/16 Friday to 46/15/16. Vodafone Group stock gained 3/16 to 41-3/4.