By Pete Angie
Verizon workers have been standing in front of the Verizon Wireless store on South Meadow Street in Ithaca every weekday since April 13, when some 39,000 workers in New York and eight other contiguous states from Connecticut to West Virginia began a strike after months of negotiations.
The workers are represented by the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and have been without a contract since Aug. 1, 2015. Workers oppose portions of Verizon’s proposed contract that they feel would open the door to outsourcing more jobs overseas, and require domestic workers to spend more time away from home, and other issues such as health care contribution increases.
Verizon counters that its contract offer provides significant pay raises, layoff protection and competitive health care and retirement packages.
“This is about job security and hours at home, not about more pay,” says Chuck Tummino, a Verizon employee of 26 years and member of CWA Local 1111.
Tummino is a line-splicer, connecting phone lines one to another. He has traveled on the job to places like New York City after hurricane Sandy, to Watertown after a major ice storm and to Buffalo after snowstorms to repair downed lines, sometimes for up to 30 days at a time.
He doesn’t mind those sorts of deployments after natural disasters, but has gotten tired of being routinely sent downstate for weeks at a time over the past several years, away from his family and the baseball team he coaches. He reports that he is not allowed to bring his own vehicle when sent out on these jobs, and is responsible for the cost of any travel to and from home during the assignment. He states that Verizon’s proposals would increase the frequency of such deployments, and include assignments out of state.
Verizon, in a statement posted on its website, says out-of-state travel would be limited only to distances that can be commuted to daily, but does not specify what that distance is. Verizon’s site also states that layoff protection is included in the contract offer, contingent on flexibility in workforce deployment.
Joe Charbano, Vice President of CWA Local 1111, says that layoff protection was offered to compensate for Verizon’s desire to eliminate Article 8 of the previous contract, which limited the distance Verizon could permanently relocate workers to 50 miles. Without Article 8, he says, Verizon could force employees to relocate permanently to different states or face losing their jobs.
Rich Young, a spokesperson for Verizon, would not elaborate on the layoff protection offer, or other components of the proposed contract, citing a gag order that has been put in place by the U.S. Department of Labor, which is has been mediating negotiations. Young did say that all parts of the offer are subject to change at the bargaining table.
“Our goal is to reach a contract that’s good for our employees, good for our customers and puts the business on a path towards success,” states Young in an email to Tompkins Weekly. He also notes that Verizon’s offer includes a 7.5 percent wage increase.
“Those are good raises,” says Charbano, “but it isn’t about the money with us. It’s about preserving good American jobs.” A major concern shared by union members is the loss of work to outside contractors, the closing and consolidation of call centers, and routing of calls to overseas call centers in places like the Philippines and Mexico.
“We’re worried about outsourcing, off-shoring jobs,” says Jake Lake, President of CWA Local 1111. “They want to create these mega centers and possibly ship them down to right-to-work states. And we want to preserve jobs in our communities.” According to Lake, locally there are customer service call centers in Syracuse, Binghamton, Elmira and Buffalo.
He notes that the previous contract dictated that 80 percent of calls had to be handled by call centers in the U.S. Language in the proposed contract could reduce that number, resulting in job losses at home. Lake worries that consolidation of call centers could also result in hours-long commutes in order for individuals to keep their jobs.
The uncertainty of how negotiations are progressing has proven stressful for many workers. However, the financial strain of participating in a strike is the most difficult part for most. “Everyone that you see on this picket line today has families, kids, wives, husbands and we’re not getting a paycheck,” Charbono says. Tummino states that he has lost his pay and health insurance, and his 16-year-old son even offered to go to work to help pay bills. He feels fortunate that his wife has a job, but worries about families that only have one income through Verizon.
Local strikers are providing information and fliers to customers entering the Meadow Street store, and asking people not to shop at Verizon until the strike is over. Volunteers from the Tompkins County Workers’ Center have been demonstrating in front of the Meadow Street store in the evenings and also providing information to customers. Jessica Shipley, with the Workers Center, encourages people to call Verizon to say they support the strike.
Editor’s note: Verizon Communications announced Monday that it has reached tentative agreements with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) on new contracts for about 36,000 employees who work primarily for the company’s network operations and consumer and mass business units. The agreement ends a strike by Verizon workers that began on April 13.
“The tentative agreements reached today are good for our employees, good for our customers and will be good for our business,” said Marc Reed, Verizon’s chief administrative officer. “The new contracts will help ensure that Verizon employees continue to receive solid wages and excellent healthcare and retirement benefits. They also include key changes sought by the company to better position our wireline business for success in the digital world.”
According to the CWA, under terms of the agreements Verizon will add 1,300 new East Coast call center jobs, and reverse outsourcing initiatives that will create new field technician jobs. The four-year proposed agreement with the CWA provides 10.9 percent in raises, a $1,250 signing bonus in the Mid-Atlantic and a $1,000 signing bonus plus a $250 health care reimbursement account in the Northeast, $2,800 minimum in profit sharing, pension increases, and a first contract for Verizon Wireless retail store employees in Brooklyn, NY, and Everett, Mass.
“The addition of good new jobs at Verizon is a huge win not just for striking workers, but for our communities and the country as a whole. This contract is a victory for working families across the country and an affirmation of the power of working people,” said Chris Shelton, President of the CWA. “It proves that when we stand together we can raise up working families, improve our communities and advance the interests of America’s working people.”
By Pete Angie