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Along picket lines, rising acrimony

Verizon asks court to restrain striking workers

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By Taryn Luna
Globe Correspondent / August 12, 2011

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WOBURN - He was just trying to deliver their last round of paychecks when an angry group of striking Verizon workers surrounded his truck as he attempted to cross a picket line yesterday morning.

Holding signs and blowing air horns, they screamed profanities and insults. Then they blocked his vehicle and swarmed the windows.

“You can deal with the name calling, you can deal with the picket lines, but it’s crazy when they’re an inch from your face screaming that they’re going to kill you and your family,’’ said the Verizon manager, who refused to provide his name in fear of retaliation.

All over the East Coast, managers in Verizon Communications Inc.’s landline division have been required to don hard hats and orange vests to do the jobs left vacant by 45,000 striking union workers who are members of the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The unions walked out after negotiations went sour.

Crossing the picket lines, managers say, has been a harrowing ordeal. Verizon won a temporary restraining order against IBEW Locals 2222, 2321, and 2322 late yesterday, after claiming that union members tailed employees and attempted to run them off the road.

A hearing continues today in Suffolk Superior Court to determine whether Verizon will win a full injunction, which among many things, requests that only two union workers be allowed to picket at each facility and that they stay at least 100 feet from company vehicles.

The temporary restraining order prohibits IBEW workers from using their cars to endanger the safety of the Verizon workers. There are about 6,000 Verizon workers on strike in Massachusetts.

Michael Mason, chief security officer for Verizon Communications, said that in the Boston area and other pockets along the East Coast, some union members are doing everything they can to push the limit of the law.

“We get injunctions any place where we feel that action is so aggressive, vile, and threatening that we need the police to engage,’’ he said.

Myles Calvey, a business manager with IBEW who is representing New England in negotiations with Verizon, said that pickets can get intense but that the unions constantly remind the members to stay within the law.

“The message we deliver is that you have to see these people back in the workplace at some point, and hopefully that’s sooner rather than later,’’ he said.

James Green, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said the goal of a strike is to disrupt operations and to show the public the seriousness of the issue. The tension on the picket line, he said, can cause tempers to flare.

“This kind of passion in this case is difficult for the person who is on the receiving end of it,’’ said Green. “But it comes with this kind of territory when people feel that everything is at stake.’’

When the strike ends, however, hard feelings can linger. “Sometimes a group of workers and employers who are involved in this type of situation never really recover,’’ he said.

Verizon brought in managers, along with employees from other parts of the country, to respond to service calls from customers. These nonunion employees allege they have been tailed by bands of protestors and run off the road. They say they have been harassed when they attempt to enter and exit Verizon facilities, grab lunch, leave their trucks, or perform repairs for customers. Concerned about their safety, the company is requiring Verizon employees to work in pairs.

But more often, managers say protestors are harmless. A Globe reporter spent more than four hours with managers on service calls yesterday, and the only time strikers threatened the safety of Verizon employees was in Woburn, where police had to call in backup to subdue the crowd. There were no acts of mobile picketing, in which union members tail employees in a truck to a job site. In South Boston, union members picketed outside a Verizon garage and respected requests from Boston police who stood nearby.

Bruce Dias, a 48-year-old tester technician and a union member, said the striking workers are there to show solidarity. That’s why he has spent each day since Sunday protesting at Verizon’s New England headquarters in downtown Boston.

He said anyone who comes in to do the unions’ work during negotiations can be a threat to the cause. “It’s a very emotional thing,’’ said Dias. “Basically we look at it as other people are trying to steal our jobs away.’’

Manuel Sampedro, Verizon’s regional president of New England, works at Verizon’s local headquarters and must cross the picket line.

“The number one priority of my job is the safety of my employees,’’ he said. “Whether it’s the techs or managers, it can be dangerous.’’

Striking Verizon employees work in the division that oversees telephone, Internet, and TV lines. The unions and management couldn’t come to an agreement on key issues including healthcare benefits, job security, and pensions.

Verizon contends that the company needs to cut costs because of the massive loss of landline customers over the past decade, coupled with increased competition and the slow economy.

At the Woburn site, protestors pulled open the door and banged on the windows of a Verizon truck driven by a manager as he attempted to cross the picket line.

The manager, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation, acknowledged that protestors aren’t always this aggressive.

Nonetheless, he said it will be difficult to work alongside some of the more caustic union members when the strike ends.

He said he plans to have supervisors focus more intensely on the performance of those union members and look for a reason to terminate them.

“I will make their life a living hell like they made mine,’’ he said.

Calvey, of the IBEW, said tensions between the employees and managers have built up over the years.

But another Verizon manager, who believes demonstrators dented his pickup truck yesterday, said managers should be pulling for the union.

“If my guys are happy and getting paid well, they will perform better for me,’’ he said.

Despite yesterday’s incident, he said he won’t hold grudges.

“I wasn’t mad,’’ he said. “I was just sad for the state of my company. ’’

Taryn Luna can be reached at tluna@globe.com.