Nearly 11,000 IBEW members working for Verizon in the Northeast voted to authorize a strike if negotiations fail to produce a new contract by the current deal’s expiration Aug. 1.
The parties remain far apart, with Verizon publicly demanding reductions in health and retirement benefits and a reduction in job protections that pave the way for greater outsourcing of jobs.
“Right now I think we have about a 50-50 chance of a deal,” said Myles Calvey, chairman of System Council T-6, which brings together seven locals across New England. “Negotiations are going slowly but we have two more weeks.”
The July 17 strike vote was nearly 100 percent in favor, Calvey said. An additional 18,000 Communications Workers of America members at Verizon will finish their strike authorization vote by the end of the month, said CWA Communications Director Candice Johnson.
“We would not go out on strike without CWA and vice versa,” Calvey said.
Calvey said the company’s aggressive negotiating stance is not driven by business need.
“Verizon is making more money now than when they negotiated these benefits in the 2000s,” he said.
According to SEC filings, last year Verizon earned nearly $10 billion from more than $127 billion in revenue. In the year Verizon was formed through a merger of Bell Atlantic and GTE, revenue was $8 billion. Although the majority of Verizon’s revenue comes from their largely nonunion wireless business, Calvey says the wireline business is also profitable.
“Verizon is making money on wireline. It just isn’t good enough for Wall Street,” he said. “That is a terrible reason to put the screws on the men and women who built their business.”
Although Calvey says he is an optimist, strikes have been a regular occurrence since Verizon’s creation by a merger of GTE and Bell Atlantic in 2000.
“We went out on strike the first year after the merger, and we struck again when the last contract expired in 2011,” said Calvey, who is also a member of the IBEW’s International Executive Council.
Verizon announced it was offering a 2 percent raise and a lump $1,000 payment to its unionized workforce in a press release.
What they company did not announce, Boston Local 2222 spokesman Paul Feeney said, was the demand that current employees pay more for health care, new employees accept a 401(k) instead of a defined benefit pension, and layoff protection provisions for all employees would be removed.
The result, Feeney said, was that contractors working outside of New England and even the U.S. would be allowed to bid on jobs currently filled by IBEW and CWA members.
“Every time they say they need flexibility to compete that is code for firing people, evading work rules and shoveling higher profits to shareholders,” Feeney said. “They are making money. All their businesses are profitable.”
And while Verizon demands flexibility. They are not allowing IBEW members to follow the new high tech jobs in the wireless side of the business.
“We know the technology is changing and our members are the best trained to do that work,” Feeney said. “Verizon just doesn’t want to pay a middle class wage. If they could, they wouldn’t have employees, just a bunch of subcontractors that 1099 their employees.”
Calvey said the unions are not trying to hold back the march of technology, far from it. But they want the new jobs that come with new technology to be more than just “poverty wages.”
As the deadline approaches, Verizon spokesman Richard Young announced the company is training more than 15,000 nonunion company employees, “in the event of a work stoppage by the unions.”
The unions have also been preparing.
“We have been telling our members to put aside money from every paycheck since the day after the last contract was signed,” Feeney said. “Verizon executives made no bones about it: they want to work without the union around.”
All seven IBEW locals in System Council T-6, including Boston Local 2222, Braintree, Mass., Local 2313, Middleton, Mass., Local 2321, Middleboro, Mass., Local 2322, Cranston, R.I., Local 2323, Springfield, Mass., Local 2324 and Worcester, Mass., Local 2325 have been holding weekly mobilization meetings at Verizon jobsites since the end of June. Union members have been holding “practice pickets” to get out the word, without calling for boycotts or urging other unions not to cross.
“We know copper wire is gone and we have absorbed terrible losses. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs. But if you want to keep what you have, and even grow, we have to be willing to sacrifice,” Calvey said. “We are ready.”