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Cell phone works to Verizon's benefit in talks with union

Jason Evans logs onto the Internet from his Hoboken, N.J., apartment using a wireless connection rather than a telephone. He uses a cell phone to call friends and family and has no plans to install a landline. And, given the choice, he always opts for the computer over directory assistance when searching for a phone number.

"If I'm anywhere near a computer, I just go to 411.com," said Evans, a network engineer by trade.

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Customers like Evans are the reason the business world is changing for phone companies such as Verizon Communications Inc., currently immersed in closely watched negotiations for a new contract with 78,000 employees.

But those same new technologies have also shifted the balance of power in any potential labor dispute away from the unions. Many people can opt for cell phones if their landline phone needs to be repaired or while they wait for new installation. Similarly, there's less reliance on directory assistance with Web-based tools such as switchboard.com. Even Verizon relies on its Web site and interactive phone software to manage customer calls with less human intervention than before.

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It's more difficult for unions such as the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to mount an action that disrupts consumers, and by extension their employer. The unions agreed early Sunday morning to continue working without a new contract because of progress in negotiations with help from a federal mediator.

Talks continued nonstop in Washington yesterday. There were reports of progress, but no immediate sign of resolution -- or of a breakdown.

If a long-term strike occurred, Verizon could see customers defect to local-phone competitors who are aggressively packaging new offers -- especially if service suffered.

"In the short term, there are a lot of competitive threats and rivals waiting in the wings, ready to capitalize on this situation," said Adam Thierer, director of telecommunications studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, a Washington think tank.

But the telecommunications world is much changed, even from three years ago when the unions staged an 18-day work stoppage at Verizon to leverage a better contract. Wireless phone and Internet access have grown enormously as alternatives to traditional phone service. Text messaging and Internet telephony are other communication options that have gained ground against the old-fashioned phone. Verizon's own extensive network, the major local phone supplier in the Northeast, is also much more sophisticated.

"So much is automated in the telephone service that it does make labor more vulnerable because the companies can take a strike more easily; there isn't going to be a quick disruption in phone service," said Roger Horowitz, a labor historian and director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Museum & Library in Wilmington, Del.

Changes in 3 years

When Verizon workers struck in 2000, phone lines were jammed with customers calling directory assistance. Now, Internet users have alternatives.

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Since fall 2001, nearly 3.5 million of Verizon's 30 million customers have registered to do business on verizon.com, using it to pay bills, request repairs, order products or add services, such as call waiting, said Mark Marchand, a Verizon spokesman in New York.

Verizon said it has trained 30,000 nonunion workers to fill in on unionized jobs in the event of a strike. But to keep business running smoothly, the company is reminding customers that the Internet can respond to certain needs.

What is sought

Along with concerns about eroding job security and increased health-insurance costs, union workers are seeking access to jobs in Verizon's growing wireless company. Verizon Communications owns 55 percent and Vodafone, a British company, owns 45 percent of the company, the leading mobile phone provider in the United States

But wireless is yet another new technology that lessens the risk of a disruption for Verizon if negotiations falter. Directory assistance and customer service calls from a Verizon Wireless phone go to a different staff than calls from a landline, so those services would not be directly affected by a strike, said John Johnson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless.

Verizon Wireless had 34.6 million customers at the end of June. That was about 40 percent more than its 24.8 million customers at the time of the last Verizon strike.

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"You're seeing a greater reliance on wireless than you have in the past," said Don Laub, director of telecommunications for the Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates the industry in the state.


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