The Washington Post

Verizon strike hits region

Barbed wire surrounds the Verizon facility on Barry Road in Southeast Washington, where Verizon workers form picketing lines to protest benefit cuts. (Astrid Riecken/For Capital Business)

Tameca Garner has been working for Verizon for 19 years. Her ex-husband works there too, as does her sister and her sister’s husband.

It’s the first job she got when she graduated from high school. “It was a good-paying job with good benefits,” said.

Now, Garner, central office technician, is one of 5,000 Verizon union workers in the area who have been on strike since Aug. 7, with both sides locked in a bitter battle over health care benefits, overtime pay and job security.

Even the most basic details are in dispute.

Verizon says it is asking union workers to contribute $1,200 to $3,000 a year for family medical coverage — a figure that Ray McConville, manager of media relations at Verizon, says is similar to what nonunion workers already pay.

Verizon workers march outside the telecommunication giant’s facility on V Street NE. (Astrid Riecken/For Capital Business)

But Mike Harris, the president of the local Communications Workers of America chapter, says health insurance contributions for the average worker will total $6,800 a year.

Negotiations between the sides have been taking place for nearly two months now, and spokesmen from both sides said they were unclear where talks currently stand.

In the meantime, “tens of thousands” of Verizon supervisors and managers are filling for the 45,000 employees who are on strike. Although McConville says managers “are answering calls, making repairs, handling billing and reporting for customer service work,” customers say there have been considerable delays in getting Internet and phone connections at both residential buildings and businesses.

Leslie Kershaw, who lives in Southeast D.C., says she has repeatedly called Verizon during the past two weeks to cancel her home phone service.

“But,” she said, “everytime I call, I get a message saying the workers are on strike. I’ve tried everything — Verizon’s online chat, e-mail, phone, but can’t get any response.”

Verizon has taken out a series of full-page newspaper ads, including in The Washington Post, to convey its side of the argument to customers, and has created YouTube videos featuring top managers talking about the company’s commitment to its customers.

The union workers, for their part, are protesting in eight states, from Massachusetts to Virginia.

“I’ve been working here 23 years, and here I am standing on the curb,” said Lloyd Smith, a 55-year-old cable-splicing technician at the company, who has been protesting in Northeast D.C. every day since the strike began. “It’s greed. Nothing but greed. We’re going to keep at it until we get something that’s fair.”

A block away, Carlos Hicks, was also picketing. The 42-year-old has been working for the company for 11 years.

“If they make us pay for benefits, that’s a pay cut,” Hicks said. “If they were losing money, I’d go with these cuts. But when they’re gaining money, no way.”

Last year, Verizon reported a profit of $2.5 billion, and revenue of $107 billion, while earnings for first half of this year totaled $3 billion.

McConville says the “overwhelming majority” of the company’s profits come from the wireless portion of Verizon’s business — a division that is not unionized.

“There’s an argument that we should be taking wireless profits and using them towards workers in other areas,” he said. “No smart businessman in the world would think that’s a good idea.”

Verizon has said that picketing workers will lose benefits if a deal is not finalized before Aug. 31, but the Communication Workers of America is making it clear that they’re not settling any time soon.

“We will last one day longer than they will,” Harris said.

Abha Bhattarai covers local retail, hospitality and banking for The Washington Post. She has previously written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.



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