Walkout puts managers back in trenches

Supervisors fill in for strikers, doing repairs, installation

August 08, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Had it been an ordinary Monday, John Stump would have been working the phones in his air-conditioned Pikesville office, with a water cooler and a restroom down the hall and a pot of coffee on a nearby countertop.

But as the 12-state strike against telecommunications giant Verizon entered its second day yesterday, Stump found himself sitting in the dirt at the bottom of a downtown Baltimore ditch, his Chicago Bears T-shirt drenched in sweat, as he worked to splice together 2,100 pairs of 1950s-era telephone wires.

Stump is one of 30,000 salaried managers along the East Coast filling the slots left vacant by 87,000 striking workers, including 8,200 in Maryland, who began a walkout at 12:01 Sunday morning.

The managers are committed to working 12-hour days during the strike as directory assistance operators, technicians and customer service representatives, while negotiators in Washington work toward a new contract.

As a former cable splicer, Stump - who started his career in 1968 with Bell Atlantic - has been on the other side of the picket lines.

He knows what it's like to fight for higher pay and holds no grudge against those who put him in this ditch.

And his 19-year-old daughter, Angela, is one of those striking.

Angela Stump, who processes phone bills at Verizon's Hunt Valley office, lives with her parents in Ellicott City. While her dad worked in his sweltering ditch yesterday, she was visiting friends in Philadelphia.

She plans to walk the picket lines Friday, but her father said it hasn't divided the household.

"She's doing what she needs to do; I'm doing what I have to do," he said.

Many of Verizon's managers, having risen through the ranks into management, have in years past performed the duties of the strikers they're replacing. And Verizon held training sessions in recent weeks to help managers brush up on their rusty skills in preparation for their strike duty.

Still, management efforts are a bit like aiming squirt guns at a house fire.

Usually, the 180 technicians who cover Baltimore, eastern Baltimore County and Harford County respond to more than 600 repair jobs - including ripped wires - and about 175 calls for new phone service a day. Each technician handles four or five jobs a day.

The few dozen managers know they will be much slower than their five-jobs-a-day employees.

In the shadow of the boarded-up American Brewery on North Gay Street, Stump and three fellow managers worked 15 hours Sunday and 12 yesterday. They withstood low-level electrical shocks, rain and mosquitoes in an effort to minimize the impact of the strike.

Their job is to take a ditch full of wiring that looks like spilled angel hair spaghetti and reconnect each thin strand to its sister.

"It's like riding a bicycle," said Chuck Kowaleski, a Verizon "team leader" who supervises work crews and was working beside Stump.

Friday, a backhoe operator accidentally severed the cable, which contains hundreds of phone lines for local businesses, homes and lottery machines.

The wires were the 50-year-old, paper-covered "pulp" type. Unlike today's color-coded wire, pulp wires must be reconnected by testing the signal of each one and then testing all the others to find the corresponding signal.

To do the job, they're making sacrifices. Kowaleski came home a day early from his vacation in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Paul Dabkowski, who oversees crews of cable splicers, forfeited vacation plans altogether. His wife and 20-month-old daughter will spend the week in Ocean City without him.

Yet, despite the rain Sunday and the heat yesterday - made worse by their disposable white plastic overalls and the huge tent blocking any breezes - the other managers didn't mind the change of pace from the office.

"It's actually fun - as long as it doesn't last more than a week," said 13-year veteran Tony Maiorana.

Verizon has 14,000 employees in Maryland, 8,200 of them represented by the Communications Workers of America. Pay runs from about $35,000 for clerical workers and operators to $50,000 for cable-splicing technicians.

Frank Crosby, manager for Baltimore-area operations, who spent part of yesterday with Stump and the others, said filling his employees' shoes gave him insight into their jobs and his.

Usually, he pushes his crews to work faster. But he has been reminded over the past two days about the unexpected things - rain and mud, ancient phone lines hidden in ancient buildings - that cause delays.

"It gives you a dose of what your people go through," he said. "We tend to forget what happens in the real world. This brings us right back."

It's also a bit nostalgic, returning managers to the days of some nasty repair job and of the mnemonic devices they used to remember color coding: "Why run backwards you varmint" meant white-red-black-yellow-violet.

They also remember their strikes: 1980, 1984, 1989. That helps ease any animosity they might harbor for striking employees.

"So, we can't begrudge them anything," Kowaleski said. "Plus, we work together every day, so you can't stay mad forever."

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