Verizon's union employees in Maryland and across the region will head back to work early next week after a deal was reached to extend their expired contract pending further negotiations, the company said Saturday in a statement.
About 45,000 workers in nine Northeastern states and Washington, D.C. went on strike when their contracts with Verizon Communications Inc. expired two weeks ago. The workers, technicians and customer support employees began negotiating with Verizon in June.
"I think we should have done this all along," said Bill Margerum, 56, a systems technician who works out of a facility in Harmans near the Arundel Mills shopping center. He's looking forward to getting off the picket line for his shift Tuesday morning. "I'm real pleased with it."
The employees returning to work, who handle Verizon's landline business, will be going back without a new collective bargaining agreement. Parties will reassume the terms of the contact that ended on Aug. 6, Verizon said, "with no specific deadline for achieving new collective bargaining agreements so that the parties can take the time required to resolve the critical issues."
The communications Workers of America said in a statement that the extension is for an "indefinite" period.
There are about 4,000 striking employees in Maryland, all members of the CWA. In several of the states affected, the union representing employees is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Verizon said that the parties have made progress on "a number of local and regional issues" and that they have agreed on "a process for moving forward to negotiate the major issues regarding benefits, cost structure, work flexibility and job security."
Verizon wants to reduce rising health care costs along with other compensation and benefits, as more customers decline landline service in favor of mobile phones. Sandra Arnette, Verizon's regional representative in Maryland, declined to elaborate on the local issues being negotiated with CWA workers in the state.
"As we've said from the beginning, benefits, cost structure, work flexibility and job security are the major issues on the bargaining table," Arnette said Saturday in an email. "There are also many local issues that are critical to the success of our business. We have made progress on a number of issues, but are not commenting on those issues until we have a final agreement reached with the unions."
Anticipating the end of the workers' contract, Verizon trained current and retired managers from all departments to take over call centers and handle service requests in case of a strike. But a smaller workforce and frequent thunderstorms throughout Maryland have exacerbated service delays since the strike began, some customers waiting five days or more for phone service to be restored.
Verizon said it expects customer service and repair response time to improve once employees return to work next week.
Out of the negotiating room, exchanges between the company and the unions have devolved into finger-pointing over who is responsible for service delays.
Margerum has worked in the telecommunications industry since "right out of high school," for about 39 years. He's seen about a half-dozen strikes over the years, he said, but the company's reaction to striking workers this time has been particularly vehement.
"When we're working, they're out there touting us as the best," Margerum said. "When we're on strike, they say 'You're the devil.'"
The company claims that striking workers are responsible for sabotage: vandalizing equipment and preventing service vehicles, driven by their replacements, from getting out of garages to service calls. The union says it believes the vandalism might be caused by replacement personnel trying to create more work for themselves.
Eddie Miller, a 41-year-old splicer from Stevensville, has already started responding to messages on Facebook from customers who have been waiting during the strike for repairs and installations, telling them he hopes he can expedited their requests next week.
"We want to do this for our customers," Miller said. "We don't want to lose them."
Verizon, which was formed in 2000 through the merger of Bell Atlantic Corp. and GTE Corp., employs about 196,000 people and brought in total operating revenue of $106.6 billion last year, according to company literature for investors.
Wireline, the company's landline division that uses CWA and IBEW workers throughout the Northeast, brought in about $41 billion in revenue in 2010, roughly $1.2 billion less than the previous year.
Verizon Wireless, the cellular side of the company, took in $63.4 billion in revenue for 2010, up a little over $3 billion from 2009.
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.