Verizon strike continues as company and workers trade barbs

Labor action is emblematic of employer-worker clashes in the wake of layoffs, wage cuts and productivity pressure

  • Striking Verizon workers walk the picket line outside a company facility in Laurel.
Striking Verizon workers walk the picket line outside a company… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
August 15, 2011|By Liz F. Kay and Hanah Cho, The Baltimore Sun

Clashes between Verizon Corp. and its workers have escalated as contract negotiations remain deadlocked and thousands of workers have been striking for more than a week.

The company has trained current and retired managers to fill jobs, angering union workers, and a Communications Workers of America spokesman said replacement workers have hit several picketers with their vehicles. Meanwhile, Verizon officials say they have seen an increase in equipment sabotage since the strike began.

The situation is emblematic of labor strife nationwide as employees face new workplace realities — lower wages, fewer jobs and downsizing that puts pressure on remaining workers to keep up productivity. The result has been more conflicts between management and workers, labor experts said.

In the public sector, the financially strapped United States Postal Service announced last week a proposal to cut 120,000 jobs and close branches, a move that would require breaking labor agreements and congressional approval. Federal government workers including thousands in Maryland also have cried foul over frozen wages and potential layoffs.

But in a down economy, employers have the advantage, said Paul Clark, professor and head of Penn State University's Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations.

"When the labor market has a lot of unemployed workers, strikes are generally less effective because employers can go out and hire people to take people's places," Clark said. "Employers feel that they have the upper hand."

Verizon and the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have been engaged in negotiations since June, but when the contract expired just before midnight Aug. 6, 45,000 union members from Massachusetts to Virginia — 4,000 in Maryland — walked out. The striking workers are technicians and customer support employees.

Since then, Verizon managers have been trained to replace those who tend copper phone and FiOS lines while union members walk picketing shifts. On Monday, union members picketed at several Verizon locations, including outside a training center in North Laurel where replacement workers have been preparing to fill empty positions.

Union representatives and Verizon officials dispute the facts surrounding the company's financial health and bonuses paid to executives. They also have traded accusations.

The company said vandalism across its system has increased. Company officials have made reports to law enforcement of about 110 incidents of fiber optic lines being cut and other problems, including in Bel Air. Some picketers also have blocked Verizon managers' access to company work centers and garages, the company alleges.

Chuck Porcari, a CWA spokesman, said the union does not condone illegal actions or violence, and he said in more than two dozen instances, workers have been struck by vehicles driven by replacement workers or managers.

Meanwhile, the impasse is having a real financial impact on households. Verizon employees Shannon Opfer and her husband, Robert Scott, have been saving for years in case they were called to the picket line. The idea for their "strike fund" was born out of her first experience on a Verizon picket line during a 17-day walkout in 2000. They have put aside cash from every paycheck, cut back on extras and put off home maintenance to build a financial cushion.

"Sooner or later, you know something is going to happen," said Opfer, who works as a splicer. "It was scary, and you don't know when it was going to end."

Verizon's contract proposal attempts to reduce rising health care costs and other compensation and benefits as more customers decline land-line service in favor of mobile phones, according to a statement.

But for Ray Pomeroy, a Verizon engineering assistant and former local union official picketing at the North Laurel training center Monday, the strike was about preserving bargaining rights. Union membership has declined nationwide in recent years.

"They came at us wanting to gut 50 years' worth of bargaining" over issues including health care, pension, overtime and holidays, he said.

As for company-worker conflicts, CWA spokesman Porcari said: "Ultimately what this is is distraction from what's at hand."

As a backdrop, the labor market is still shaky and wages have been stagnant as companies have cut back during the recession, according to labor analysts. Worker productivity rose sharply in recent years as companies laid off millions of workers.

"Workers are working harder because they are afraid to lose their jobs," said Charles Craver, a labor relations professor at the George Washington University Law School. Technology also helped companies be more efficient, Carver said.

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