Verizon workers to end walkout; no agreement on new contract

Tens of thousands of Verizon Communications employees will return to work late Monday after a two-week strike that sparked a public spat between unions and the company, and led to numerous complaints from customers.

Union leaders announced Saturday that 45,000 striking workers would end a walkout that began Aug. 7, even though there has been no agreement on the terms for a new contract.

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The Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers ended the strike, the leaders said, after Verizon agreed to undertake meaningful negotiations on key issues such as health-care costs, job-security provisions, pension contributions and sick pay. The company also agreed to leave in place the terms of the expired contract until a new one is in place.

“It’s not a victory” for the employees, CWA President Larry Cohen said in an interview Saturday afternoon. Rather, he said, the return to work represents one step in a process that will take months to resolve. “This was a strike really about bargaining rights and the bargaining process. . . . We were seeking meaningful collective bargaining. We believe we have an opportunity for that now.”

Verizon’s executive vice president of human resources, Marc Reed, agreed that calling off the stalemate makes sense for both sides.

“We agreed to end the strike because we believe that is in the best interest of our customers and our employees,” Reed said in a statement. “We remain committed to our objectives, and we look forward to negotiating the important issues that are integral to the future health of Verizon’s wireline business.”

This month’s strike, which stretched from Massachusetts to Virginia, involved workers in Verizon’s wireline business, which includes telephone landlines, cable and FiOS Internet operations. More than 7,300 workers in the District, Virginia and Maryland took part in the strike, union officials said. It did not include the bulk of Verizon Wireless workers, who are largely nonunion.

Company officials had demanded significant concessions, saying such sacrifice was necessary to keep the business competitive and to boost sagging profits. Among other issues, it had sought to freeze pensions for current workers, cut the number of sick days and scale back job-security provisions. It also wanted workers to contribute more toward their health-care costs.

Verizon spokesman Peter Thonis said serious changes­ were warranted. The company’s wireline business had been losing customers over the past decade because of increased cellphone use, he said, and is far less profitable than in the past.

“Our view is that it’s not sustainable,” Thonis said of the current contract, noting that about three-quarters of Verizon’s 195,000 employees do not belong to a union. “There are work rules that just don’t make sense anymore. . . . We’re trying to modernize them so that we can be competitive.”

Cohen and other union officials counter that the wireline business helps support the wireless side and that the company has reported steady profits of late. He said the unions initiated the strike after company officials demanded the far-reaching concessions but did not take workers’ concerns seriously. Union leaders saw the company’s unyielding position as an attempt to effectively eliminate bargaining rights, likening the approach to governors who recently have sought to do away with collective bargaining for state employees.

The ensuing strike came with consequences.

For thousands of workers and their families, it meant no paycheck for two weeks in uncertain economic times. For Verizon, it meant a hit to the company’s reputation as well as calls and e-mails from customers who complained of maddening delays in repairs and new installations. The company brought in managers and nonunion workers from around the country to help fill gaps left by striking workers and to cut down on service disruptions.

The standoff also resulted in a brief but intense public relations war. Thousands of workers picketed in cities up and down the East Coast. In print, in television and on the radio, Verizon and the unions took turns portraying each other as stubborn, greedy and out of touch with reality.

“Verizon is refusing to bargain, pushing a contract that will push workers out of the middle class and roll back more than 50 years of gains for working families,” read one CWA ad that featured a longtime Verizon employee and directed readers to a Web site, verygreedyverizon.com.

Verizon also went on the offensive. In a full-page ad in The Washington Post on Friday, the company noted that the most recent union contracts “were drafted 50 years ago, when people still used rotary phones. In order for us to stay competitive in the here and now, Verizon is proposing to update the contracts in a reasonable manner to reflect the changing times.” The ad also directed readers to a Web site, verizonbargainingfacts.com.

Despite the antagonism, both sides appeared to breathe a sigh of relief Saturday, despite the delicate negotiations that lie ahead.

Verizon said that with employees back on the job, it planned to quickly address any backlog in repairs and unfulfilled requests for service.

“We are pleased that during this stressful economic period our union-represented employees will be back at work earning good wages and benefits while serving our customers,” said Reed, the human resources executive.

Union leaders also sounded an optimistic note.

“It’s a positive day for everybody. People go back to work; the customer gets served; the company gets back to normal,” said IBEW spokesman Jim Spellane. “We’ve taken the intense pressure of the last two weeks off. It’s good to lower the temperature. . . . Hopefully, today will be a turning point.”

 
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