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Strike is over, but not the sparring

Work, new talks resume at Verizon

By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / August 22, 2011

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Verizon workers expressed relief yesterday that their 13-day strike has ended - at least for now - and that they can return to work this week.

Picketing workers like 41-year-old Claudia Slaney, a mother of four whose husband also works for Verizon Communications Inc., said she will be happy to see the return of her paycheck.

“It’s still up in the air and nothing has been resolved, but we’re just happy to be going back,’’ said Slaney, who lives in Hudson, N.H. “I feel better.’’

The strike, one of the largest in a decade, concluded Saturday after representatives from the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers met on Friday with the chief executive of Verizon, Lowell McAdam and other company officials at a Hyatt Regency hotel in Washington, D.C.

Both sides announced Saturday that they would return to the bargaining table to begin a fresh set of talks this week and that workers would return to their jobs tomorrow, under the terms of their previous contract, while the negotiations continue.

Neither side declared victory. Verizon officials issued a statement saying both sides were making “headway in negotiating a number of local and regional issues.’’ The company had no further comment yesterday.

Myles Calvey, business manager for Boston’s International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 2222, who participated in the meeting, said it was the first between union leaders and McAdam and that the tone was conciliatory.

“We both understood the negotiations were really not botched, but very difficult,’’ he said. “It was never cantankerous. There wasn’t a lot of yelling and screaming.’’

The meeting followed weeks of bitter accusations from both sides, including claims of sabotaged cables and picket line confrontations between strikers and Verizon managers who took over their duties. Verizon sought court injunctions against the unions in five states, including Massachusetts. About 6,000 workers in Massachusetts were on strike, as were 800 in Rhode Island.

Yesterday, Calvey said a new contract could be enacted by the end of this year. Pension and health care benefits “are on the table,’’ he said. Verizon is looking for ways to hold down costs, he said, because the company faces higher taxes associated with complying with new national health care rules created by the Obama administration.

Verizon has said it has lost more than 35 million landline customers in the past decade and needs to find ways to remain competitive in a difficult business climate.

The strike brought customer complaints about service interruptions. Workers forfeited their paychecks, and Verizon undertook an advertising campaign to defend its position. The timing of the strike was also unusual, occurring at a precarious economic time when jobs are scarce and unemployment high.

Calvey said the Friday meeting did not include discussions about replacement workers and that management agreed to temporarily suspend rules limiting employee overtime. Fierce rainstorms that led to service interruptions in recent weeks helped spur renewed talks, he said, because the company needed its workers.

Chuck Miller, a Verizon employee of 33 years who lives in Charlestown, said he wanted to know why top Verizon officials did not meet with the union sooner to avert a strike. He was skeptical that a new round of negotiations would yield an acceptable contract.

“It’s not over - we don’t have a contract yet,’’ he said. I’m happy we’re going back to work but it’s not really over until we get a new contract.’’

Bruce Dias of Wareham said he felt renewed hope that contract issues will be resolved.

He was picketing on Saturday afternoon when word swept through that the strike had been called off and that workers could go home. He said everyone seemed elated.

“We could go back on strike again . . . but I think there’s a pretty good chance they’ll reach an agreement,’’ he said. He is saving money, just in case.

“I hope for the best, prepare for the worst,’’ he said.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.


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