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Lawrence Harmon

Sabotage, violence do union no good

By Lawrence Harmon
August 12, 2011

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A CENTURY ago, it was common for companies to hire goon squads to assault striking workers. Now it’s some unionized workers and their supporters who act more like the heavies. And it doesn’t exactly build strong public support for labor.

The 45,000 Verizon workers now on strike along the Eastern seaboard enjoy an excellent salary and benefits package. It makes perfect sense for them to fight passionately to protect it. But that fight has descended into acts of sabotage and intimidation since the strike began on Sunday. Cable cutting and other destruction of Verizon property have been reported in Tewksbury, Billerica, and Easton as well as in cities and towns in New York and New Jersey, disrupting phone, television, and Internet service in homes, businesses, and medical offices. On Wednesday, the company also released video of a striking technician shouting threats and racial slurs at two managers. Verizon officials say the worker had also tried to run the managers off the road along Route 495.

Union leaders say they neither encourage nor condone such actions. But similar incidents were common during Verizon strikes in 1989 and 2000, suggesting a lack of attention to the problem. Some Verizon workers simply have no shame about crossing lines of civility while demanding that others respect their picket lines.

The strikers have a lot of strong points to make about a highly profitable company that is trying to pare back the pensions, health benefits, and job protections of its unionized workforce. But it was hard to hear that message above the curses directed at replacement workers and managers by some strikers on the picket line in downtown Boston this week. A lot more thought-provoking were the strikers’ chants of “RIF, RIF, RIF,’’ which also rained down upon scores of managers as they walked stone-faced across the picket line on Franklin Street. RIF stands for a general reduction in force - might managers be next?

Meanwhile, trouble along the picket lines has escalated to the point that Verizon is suing unions to stop the harassment and apparent sabotage. Michael Mason, the chief security officer at Verizon, said he received more than 300 strike-related complaints on Tuesday alone, the third day of the strike. They ranged from damaged equipment to physical abuse of replacement workers. Mason, a former FBI official, said a “veil of anonymity’’ on the picket line emboldens some picketers. The more severe offenses, he said, have been observed in Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey.

Reining in Verizon’s workers won’t be easy. They draw their members from two militant unions - the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America. And neither are known for blindly following the dictates of their union leaders. On the upside, it’s a proudly democratic tradition. On the down side, hotheads get plenty of traction. And some aren’t too smart. During the Verizon strike in 2000, for example, two strikers in New York were nearly electrocuted while trying to sabotage what they thought was a phone line but turned out to be a 13,000-volt power cable.

Russ Davis, the executive director of the pro-labor organization Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, said that today’s strikes are more likely to be won in the realm of public perception than on the picket line.

“No level of cutting cable is going to hurt Verizon more than it helps Verizon,’’ said Davis.

The strikers’ more aggressive tactics are likely to backfire, at least in the battle for public support. The widespread use of “mobile pickets’’ is a good example. Strikers see little tactical sense in picketing central offices, company garages, call centers, or other Verizon facilities other than the few times a day when managers are coming and going. So they follow repair vehicles instead, shouting and intimidating replacement workers, often in isolated areas. But anyone encountering the scene would probably be more likely to sympathize with the individual target than the loud group surrounding him.

Verizon strikers are legitimately concerned about their job security. But it isn’t just the union and company negotiators who will have a say in that matter. Verizon customers also must have confidence in the conduct of the workers who enter their homes to install equipment and make repairs. Customers slam their doors on acts of sabotage and violence.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.