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Steve Early and Don Trementozzi

On the picket lines

Issues in strike affect more than Verizon workers

Verizon workers picket outside of the company’s New England headquarters in Boston Sunday. Verizon workers picket outside of the company’s New England headquarters in Boston Sunday. (Associated Press)
By Steve Early and Don Trementozzi
August 9, 2011

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GIVEN THE low level of labor unrest in the United States lately, the regional walkout by 45,000 Verizon workers may strike some as a “man-bites-dog’’ story. The reasons for this conflict are not new or unusual, however. The powerful corporation has clashed with its unionized employees repeatedly over the last 25 years, making it a poster child for labor and management militancy in New York and New England.

As participants in past or present phone company battles, on the union side, we don’t pretend to be objective observers of the current fray. But the issues at stake and the strike’s economic context clearly affect far more workers and their families than those now manning picket lines in the largest US work stoppage in the last seven years.

All across the country, blue-collar and white-collar workers have been badly battered by the recession. They’ve lost jobs, fringe benefits, equity in their homes, and a good deal of their retirement security.

In the public sector, workers have paid a heavy price for budget shortfalls exacerbated by recession conditions, tax cuts, and a trillion dollars worth of federal spending that went to foreign wars instead of meeting human needs at home. As a result, some states, including Massachusetts, have even curbed or eliminated the collective right to bargain about pay, benefits, or working conditions.

This grim negotiating climate creates a great opportunity for Verizon to take back what it can. Yet, as The Wall Street Journal noted last month, the telecom giant “isn’t under any financial stress.’’ Verizon reported $10.2 billion in profits in 2010 and its net income for the first half of this year was $6.9 billion. Over the past four years, the company earned nearly $20 billion for its shareholders.

This enviable record of profitability has been used to justify the $258 million spent on salaries, bonuses, and stock options for just five of the company’s top executives over the past four years. CEO Lowell McAdam’s compensation works out to about $55,000 per day, according to the Communication Workers of America. Compare that to the per-employee cost of all the pay and benefit concessions currently being sought by Verizon, which is $20,000 or more.

If the two unions on strike - the Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers - agreed to Verizon’s proposed contract changes, workers with families would pay up to $3,000 a year in medical premiums. Group pension coverage would be frozen, sick days would be limited, and job security protections would be eliminated.

A victory by Verizon would send a powerful message of encouragement to every other unionized employer seeking “contract relief,’’ based on balance sheets far less impressive than Verizon’s. In the majority of workplaces, where pay, benefits, and personnel policies can be changed unilaterally by management - without any prior discussion with affected employees - non-union employers would be similarly emboldened to lower their employment standards. On the other hand, if widespread labor and community support helps Verizon strikers maintain a model contract, all Massachusetts workers would have something to celebrate on Labor Day, for the first time in a long while.

Steve Early is a retired organizer for the Communications Workers of America, who aided past Verizon strikes. Don Trementozzi is a Verizon customer service representative and CWA local union president involved in the current strike.