Talks between Verizon, unions lag

Discussions include wages, job security

August 08, 2000|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

Verizon Communications and its two unions bogged down yesterday in talks that were aimed at ending a strike by 87,000 telephone workers who walked out Sunday over such issues as pay, job security and the desire to unionize workers in Verizon's wireless communications business.

"Bargaining hit a snag over the issue of movement of work throughout the new Verizon company," the Communications Workers of America said in a statement. "CWA is seeking restrictions on the shifting of work from one area to another in light of the GTE-Bell Atlantic merger."

The CWA said most other key issues also had not been resolved, including the union's ability to organize nonunion workers in the company's rapidly growing Verizon Wireless division. Other unresolved concerns included forced overtime and stressful working conditions for operators and service representatives.

"We've made some good progress," said Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe, "but there are some outstanding issues ... so I don't want to lead anybody to the conclusion that we're on the brink of a settlement."

Jim Spellane, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which accompanied the CWA on strike, said that "things are getting done."

Talks resumed about 8 a.m. yesterday after a 16-hour session Sunday. Negotiators adjourned the talks about 8 p.m. last night.

The 15,000 IBEW employees and the 72,000 CWA workers who went on strike early Sunday morning are employees of the former Bell Atlantic, which serves 25 million customers from Maine to Virginia, including in Maryland. Roughly 8,200 union employees - all with the CWA - work in Maryland, according to Verizon spokeswoman Sandra Arnette.

The New York-based Verizon, the nation's largest telephone company, was formed when Bell Atlantic bought GTE Corp. in June. Overall, it has about 260,000 employees.

About 14,000 union members picketed more than 540 Verizon facilities yesterday, compared with 6,000 picketers at 300 locations Sunday.

The strike hasn't hindered customers' ability to make phone calls, which are highly automated, said Arnette. Verizon is filling some of the vacant jobs with 30,000 managers. However, the union walkout has led to a virtual shutdown of the "411" directory-assistance service, as well as in long delays fulfilling service requests.

For people such as Jeff Dorsey, these delays made for a frustrating workday yesterday. Dorsey is a sales-and-service specialist for Maryland Telephone, a Towson firm that manages telecommunications systems for such commercial customers as car dealerships and real estate agencies.

When Dorsey's customers experience trouble with the high-speed lines they use for data transmission and Internet traffic, he calls Verizon, orders the repair and shepherds it through. Yesterday, however, the strike meant either long waits on hold or e-mailing Verizon with service requests, with little confidence they would be read and acted on promptly.

"I've been on hold for over an hour," Dorsey said with a rueful laugh.

In 1995, when a previous contract expired, union workers stayed on the job until negotiators from the union and Bell Atlantic were able to reach a new bargaining agreement. On Sunday, however, workers struck as talks proceeded.

Areas of disagreement include typical issues such as pay, benefits and mandatory overtime, and the company's desire to ease the stringent workplace rules that specify which workers may do which jobs.

Union officials say they also are concerned about the difficulty they've had unionizing the Verizon Wireless unit, one of the fastest-growing parts of the company's business. That business, a joint venture with Vodafone PLC of Great Britain, has roughly 50 union members in a work force of 30,000.

Company officials say they are competing against nonunion communications companies, and that's why Verizon has sought highly flexible workplace rules even during informal talks with the union before negotiations officially began June 26, the company said.

Keith Cyphers, a 45-year-old cable-slicing technician who is on strike, said union workers started to ready themselves months ago for a strike, putting their finances in such good order that even a work stoppage of several months shouldn't be too much of a hardship.

"While we hoped they'd settle, we prepared for this," said Cyphers, a father of three who lives in Belcamp, Harford County.

Union workers say they only want to share in their company's success during a period that's the most prosperous - and the most technologically advanced - in the nation's history.

"When you see the CEO getting $20 million in bonuses and salary, and they quibble with us over 3 or 4 percent," workers question the company's commitment to its employees, Cyphers said. "It's a $60 billion company. ... We know the money's there. We just have a modest request, that they give up some for the workers."

Wire services contributed to this article.

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