Verizon strike continues as company and workers trade barbs

Striking Verizon workers walk the picket line outside a company facility in Laurel.
Striking Verizon workers walk the picket line outside a company facility in Laurel. (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Clashes between Verizon Corp. and its workers have escalated as contract negotiations remain deadlocked and thousands of workers have been striking for more than a week.

The company has trained current and retired managers to fill jobs, angering union workers, and a Communications Workers of America spokesman said replacement workers have hit several picketers with their vehicles. Meanwhile, Verizon officials say they have seen an increase in equipment sabotage since the strike began.

The situation is emblematic of labor strife nationwide as employees face new workplace realities — lower wages, fewer jobs and downsizing that puts pressure on remaining workers to keep up productivity. The result has been more conflicts between management and workers, labor experts said.

In the public sector, the financially strapped United States Postal Service announced last week a proposal to cut 120,000 jobs and close branches, a move that would require breaking labor agreements and congressional approval. Federal government workers including thousands in Maryland also have cried foul over frozen wages and potential layoffs.

But in a down economy, employers have the advantage, said Paul Clark, professor and head of Penn State University's Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations.

"When the labor market has a lot of unemployed workers, strikes are generally less effective because employers can go out and hire people to take people's places," Clark said. "Employers feel that they have the upper hand."

Verizon and the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have been engaged in negotiations since June, but when the contract expired just before midnight Aug. 6, 45,000 union members from Massachusetts to Virginia — 4,000 in Maryland — walked out. The striking workers are technicians and customer support employees.

Since then, Verizon managers have been trained to replace those who tend copper phone and FiOS lines while union members walk picketing shifts. On Monday, union members picketed at several Verizon locations, including outside a training center in North Laurel where replacement workers have been preparing to fill empty positions.

Union representatives and Verizon officials dispute the facts surrounding the company's financial health and bonuses paid to executives. They also have traded accusations.

The company said vandalism across its system has increased. Company officials have made reports to law enforcement of about 110 incidents of fiber optic lines being cut and other problems, including in Bel Air. Some picketers also have blocked Verizon managers' access to company work centers and garages, the company alleges.

Chuck Porcari, a CWA spokesman, said the union does not condone illegal actions or violence, and he said in more than two dozen instances, workers have been struck by vehicles driven by replacement workers or managers.

Meanwhile, the impasse is having a real financial impact on households. Verizon employees Shannon Opfer and her husband, Robert Scott, have been saving for years in case they were called to the picket line. The idea for their "strike fund" was born out of her first experience on a Verizon picket line during a 17-day walkout in 2000. They have put aside cash from every paycheck, cut back on extras and put off home maintenance to build a financial cushion.

"Sooner or later, you know something is going to happen," said Opfer, who works as a splicer. "It was scary, and you don't know when it was going to end."

Verizon's contract proposal attempts to reduce rising health care costs and other compensation and benefits as more customers decline land-line service in favor of mobile phones, according to a statement.

But for Ray Pomeroy, a Verizon engineering assistant and former local union official picketing at the North Laurel training center Monday, the strike was about preserving bargaining rights. Union membership has declined nationwide in recent years.

"They came at us wanting to gut 50 years' worth of bargaining" over issues including health care, pension, overtime and holidays, he said.

As for company-worker conflicts, CWA spokesman Porcari said: "Ultimately what this is is distraction from what's at hand."

As a backdrop, the labor market is still shaky and wages have been stagnant as companies have cut back during the recession, according to labor analysts. Worker productivity rose sharply in recent years as companies laid off millions of workers.

"Workers are working harder because they are afraid to lose their jobs," said Charles Craver, a labor relations professor at the George Washington University Law School. Technology also helped companies be more efficient, Carver said.

But during the first six months of this year, productivity declined. Instead of signaling a possible ramp-up in hiring, economists said, it's a bad sign for the labor market. That's because employers added workers at the beginning of the year anticipating stronger growth but when that did not happen, companies had more workers but not enough work to do, said Charles W. McMillion, president and chief economist at MBG Information Services in Washington.

"Now, hopefully as production picks up, if it does, employers will add hours of work to the existing work force rather than adding new jobs," McMillion said.

Referring to the Verizon strike, Clark said: "They're simply taking advantage of that situation in this case to cut back on wages and benefits at a time when they have the advantage."

Verizon spokeswoman Sandra Arnette said that for several months the company has trained tens of thousands of management employees to step into call centers as well as maintenance and installation positions in case of a strike. "The needs of the business are still there," she said."For the most part we're trying to keep business operations as close to normal as possible."

The company said in a statement that it completed more than 75 percent of repair commitments on Sunday, but they are asking customers to be patient if they experience longer waits when calling sales or service centers as for completing repairs.

Briana Gowing usually works in government affairs for Verizon as a liaison with municipalities. But for the last nine days, the Elkridge resident has pulled 12-hour shifts doing repair work in homes, apartment houses and businesses. "It's okay. We know people want their telephone service," she said.

Gowing said she completed 40 hours of online training, two weeks in the classroom and several days training with a supervisor. The experience has made her appreciate how difficult it can be to isolate the source of problems, said Gowing, who has been with Verizon for 16 years. "It's a complicated network," she said.

Opfer, the Verizon splicer and local union official, said it's frustrating to watch others do her job and contends the limited instruction of replacements puts them at risk of injury.

"They're training them to essentially take food out of my mouth," she said. "They don't have the training to do what we do on an everyday basis," she said.