February 2011

Mass. Attorney Gen. to Verizon:
Fix Your Landlines
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When dozens of Verizon's landline customers in 99 small towns in Western Massachusetts had their fill of poor service, static on the lines and dead dial tones, they contacted the state's Department of Telecommunications and Cable.

Springfield Local 2324's Business Manager John Rowley Sr., representing workers at Verizon, and his members had a decision to make. They knew better than most that the copper infrastructure was the culprit. The only options were to join hands with Verizon's disgruntled customers or just watch and listen from the sidelines at public hearings set up by state regulators.

"Ultimately I knew the only way to effectively deal with the situation was to become a participant in the proceedings. If the members wanted to speak out, they could not," says Rowley. Workers at utility companies lack whistleblower protections and could be disciplined for testifying about poor service, so Rowley carried the ball for them.

"I believed that this was our chance for the union to show that we are not just in our communities for ourselves," says Rowley, who filed the formal petition to intervene in the investigation.

As a direct result of Local 2324's intervention, Verizon agreed to a settlement in late December with Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley that provides for significant improvement to its infrastructure and network in Western Massachusetts. The settlement is pending approval of the DTC.

"Reliable telephone service is crucial to every household and business in Massachusetts," said Coakley. "Parts of Western Massachusetts, which lack wireless service and access to other landline service providers, rely solely on Verizon's landline service for access to emergency services and in order to conduct business and daily communications."

The settlement agreement, which will be presented at a public hearing, compels Verizon to immediately survey and complete all repair work in 33 wire centers serving 65 municipalities and to improve the condition of the network in 34 additional wire centers within 15 months. Verizon will submit quarterly reports on progress, which will be monitored by the Attorney General's office. "Every wire center is getting a good going over," says Rowley.

"Having the opportunity to work side by side with the Attorney General's office on behalf of Western Massachusetts consumers has been a tremendous experience," says Rowley. "In the long run, it is the customers that will benefit from everyone's efforts." Massachusetts residents, he says, are fortunate that the Attorney General's department includes an Office of Ratepayer Advocacy.

After the announcement of the settlement agreement, says Rowley, even members who were skeptical about the local's intervention are beginning to see the benefits of the victory for the customers.

Some of the western region's towns have only 500 citizens. With nearly 3,000 square miles in Local 2324's jurisdiction, building public support for private-sector unionism is challenging. The local's intervention could be an example for other telecommunications and utility locals facing similar consumer demographics and service issues.

"Find out who has regulatory authority in your area," says Rowley. "Get the customers involved. If they make phone calls and send e-mails, things can happen. Fifty e-mails mean next to nothing. Five hundred start a fire," he adds.

"This is an incredibly unique opportunity. When we take a stand and back up our words with action, we make a lot of friends," says Rowley. At the same time, he says, "I have tempered optimism that the union and the company will continue to work together now and in the future." However, he says, success isn't possible without the willingness to try.

Bob Erickson, International Representative, IBEW Telecommunications Department, says, "The efforts of John Rowley and Local 2324 demonstrate the powerful benefits of working with state officials to resolve issues that affect not only our members, but the customers we serve."