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Unions say Verizon fired 40 over strike

Company alleges breaches of conduct

By Michael B. Farrell
Globe Staff / December 7, 2011
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Labor union leaders say that Verizon Communications Inc. has fired 40 employees involved in a contentious two-week labor strike over the summer for alleged actions that range from threats of violence to harassment and intimidation.

The employees, including 10 in Massachusetts, received letters over the weekend saying they were terminated for violating Verizon’s code of conduct while picketing against cuts in benefits. Union leaders say that they will fight the terminations in court.

About 45,000 members of the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, including 6,000 in Massachusetts, went on a 13-day strike in August that quickly turned bitter.

Tensions were high as striking workers gave up paychecks and service complaints from Verizon customers piled up. The company reported sabotaged cables and confrontations on the picket lines.

“We respect the rights of our employees to peacefully picket and protest during a strike. However, the actions of many individuals in the August 2011 strike violated our code of conduct and in some cases, violated the law,’’ Verizon said in a prepared statement.

“This has nothing to do with their rights to peacefully picket. It has everything to do with making threats of violence, engaging in physical violence, running people off the road, making outrageous profane or racist comments, and more. Many of these activities were egregious and unacceptable and as a result, we’ve taken appropriate action.’’

Paul Feeney, legislative director of IBEW Local 2222 of Dorchester, said that while the strike did become heated, the union workers did not break the law.

“We think this is a heavy-handed technique that Verizon is using to pressure us at the negotiating table,’’ Feeney said. “The union is going to fight this through the court,’’ he said. “The company couldn’t prove to us that they did anything wrong.’’

CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson said other striking workers who were fired have returned to work after their records have been cleared.

“We are continuing to pursue a fair determination for all Verizon workers who were fired,’’ said Johnson.

The union members who went on strike work for the company’s landline telephone, Internet, and television services.

Talks broke down, according to the unions, because the company wanted to freeze pensions, loosen job security provisions, and change health coverage to require higher premiums.

The strike ended when unionized workers agreed to return to work under the old contract as both sides negotiated a new bargaining agreement. Talks continue, and it’s unclear when a new contract will be signed.

Verizon has said it needed concessions because of the loss of some 35 million landline customers in the past decade in the face of increased competition and a tough economic climate that is forcing the company to cut costs in an area that is no longer growing.

Feeney said that talks between Verizon and the IBEW have made little progress toward reaching a deal. He said that strikers agreed to return to work because Verizon said it would return to the table with “a new style of bargaining,’’ but he said that hasn’t happened.

That’s a starkly different characterization of the negotiations than the one offered by Verizon. “Progress is being made,’’ said Verizon spokesman Phil Santoro.

While the unions have said they hoped to reach a deal by the end of the year, Santoro said, “there’s no deadline.’’

“There’s a whole series of provisions that we are negotiating, all of which point to the need to reduce costs on the wire line side of the business,’’ he said.

In the aftermath of such acrimonious labor disputes, it’s not uncommon for companies to take disciplinary action against workers.

The 40 employees who were fired had been suspended following the strike and were the subject of investigation by the company.

“It’s not unusual in a contentious situation where passions are running high,’’ said Thomas Kohler, a professor of law at Boston College who specializes in labor and employment law issues. “The employees will engage in activities that employers find unprotected’’ by the law.

Often companies deal with these employees as part of a settlement agreement with the union. In some cases, however, the union will challenge the firings with the National Labor Relations Board.

“We’re going to fight because it’s an unjust termination,’’ said John Colleran, a Verizon lineman for 18 years who received a letter of termination on Saturday. “What they want to do is break the union. They want to oust people like myself and others.’’

Colleran, of Revere, said that Verizon accused him of threatening a manager during the strike.

“We had some colorful language, I’ll agree with that,’’ he said. “We were calling them scabs.’’

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.

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