A DJ pumped out upbeat tunes to a crowd of about 250 red-shirted Verizon workers picketing at the company’s Hunt Valley facility on Monday, but the striking workers heard one bit of news that was anything but jolly.
“You will get letters today saying your health insurance ends at the end of the month,” Bill Dulaney, president of Communications Workers of America Local 2101, told the crowd.
Dulaney said he received his letter Monday informing him that – as one of the approximately 45,000 Verizon workers from Massachusetts to Virginia participating in a strike against the global communications giant since Aug. 7 – he would soon be losing his health coverage, pension benefits, life insurance and other benefits.
“They didn’t cancel scabs’ health insurance,” Dulaney said later, in a phone interview with The Brew. “They’re trying to scare the hell out of everybody. We’re in the fight of our lives, here.”
Still, he said, the workers’ resolve will not be shaken, in part because so much is at stake.
“We’re fighting for jobs – good middle class jobs,” he said. “The middle class is basically going away” because workers have been accepting concessions like the ones Verizon is seeking, he said.
Verizon spokeswoman Sandra Arnette, meanwhile, describes the workers’ current health benefits package a “Cadillac healthcare plan” and said economic realities, as customers move from landlines to cell phones and Skype, make the company’s requested concessions necessary and fair.
“The union contracts that expired,” Arnette said, via email, “were the product of a bygone era when our name and our business were different.”
A Standout Contract, Under Attack?
Verizon’s landline workers have been walking picket lines in Baltimore, Maryland and across the northeastern U.S. – in the nation’s biggest strike since 74,000 General Motors workers went out for two days in 2007. About 35,000 of the Verizon strikers are represented by the CWA; about 10,000 are represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
In contract talks that broke down earlier this month, Verizon has been asking for a dramatic package of concessions, among them the loss of about $6,000 in yearly health benefits, union leaders say.
That’s a big change for workers who under the current contract have “a lot of co-pays,” Dulaney said, but don’t “pay anything out of our paychecks” for health benefits.
That loss of health benefits and other givebacks in the proposed contract would net Verizon annually about $1 billion, or $20,000 per worker, according to the unions.
“They’re reducing sick time to no more than five days a year, they’re eliminating overtime caps, and they’re getting rid of pensions” for future employees, Dulaney said. (Current employees, under the company’s proposal, would have their pension contributions frozen.)
“There used to be a requirement they couldn’t make you work more than 35 miles from where you work now. They’re taking that away,” he said. “They’re taking away certain holidays (Martin Luther King Day and Memorial Day.) I can go on and on.” Job security provisions would also be eliminated under the proposed contract.
The other reason workers are resisting these concessions and walking picket lines during dire economic times, as Bill Barry sees it, is that they know the company “has plenty of money.” Barry is director of labor studies at Community College of Baltimore County.
Verizon has been a profitable company, with a net income of $6.9 billion in the first six months of this year. According to The New York Times, Verizon spent $258 million over the last four years in salaries, bonuses and stock options for just five of its top executives. And according to a June 2011 Citizens for Tax Justice report, the company paid no corporate income taxes in the 2008 to 2010 period. (Also, according to that report, Verizon has received $1 billion in tax benefits from the federal government during that time.)
Just how flush the company is has been a bone of contention, as this prominent section of a Verizon press statement suggests.
“The unions have incorrectly asserted that Verizon made a profit of $10 billion last year. Our profit last year was $2.5 billion, most of which is from the non-unionized portion of our business,” the statement said.
The statement also took issue with The Times’ report on top executives’ compensation, saying most of it “only will be provided if the executives meet or exceed financial and operational objectives and high shareholder returns.”
On the flip side, the unions dispute management’s portrayal of workers as overcompensated. Here’s how The Times described this part of the war of words:
“Verizon says its unionized employees are well paid, with many field technicians earning more than $90,000 a year, including overtime, with an additional $50,000 in benefits. Union officials say the field technicians and call center workers generally earn $60,000 to $77,000 a year before overtime and that benefits come to far less than $50,000 a year.”
Dulaney sees the spin campaign – “trying to portray us as whiners” – as a form of “union-busting.”
“These are the kinds of benefits and contracts that used to be standard,” he said. In Barry’s view, “this is really an epic struggle to hold the line.”
Keeping up the Pressure
In picket locations in Maryland and elsewhere, clashes between replacement workers and picketers have produced some physical confrontations and even alleged injuries.
“Some of the guys are being brushed aside by the managers coming in their cars,” Dulaney said, noting that “it happened here,” at the picketing on Old Court Road.
(Local sites for picketing include 2815 Druid Park Dr., 99 Shawan Rd. in Hunt Valley, 320 Saint Paul Place, 7807 Fitch Lane off Rossvile Blvd., 5305 Old Court Rd. in Randallstown and 6810 Dogwood Rd. in Woodlawn.)
The company, meanwhile, has alleged that that there have been 143 acts of sabotage to telephone facilities since the strike began and now the FBI is reportedly investigating the allegations because “critical infrastructure” is being threatened.
The union says it doesn’t condone sabotage; Verizon says it doesn’t condone replacement workers knocking into strikers with their cars.
In Hunt Valley, two workers on last week’s picket line talked about another major point of contention in the labor-management clash: the question of whether the Verizon’s “wireline” division is sagging and whether that justifies the company’s hard line on the contract.
Verizon says the non-union wireless side of the company has been profitable while the wireline businesses, (which include home and business telephone landlines as well as the FiOS services) have seen declines in their customer base and profitability as customers use fewer landline phones.
“Businesses still need landlines and many of the losses are being replaced by FIOS, which we happen to install,” said Steve Glenn, cable splicer, Local 2100 member, and Verizon employee of 14 years.
“The side of the company that built wireless is the landline side,” Tom Hier added.
“And it’s not just in people’s homes. The traffic cameras on the beltway, we put those in,” said Hier, a cable splicer and Local 2100 member. “Copper lines are going to be around forever.”
Glenn and Hier, who both identified themselves as conservative-leaning Republicans, stressed that they are grateful to have their jobs.
“I work 60 to 70 hours a week, and I love my job,” Glenn said. “But now they want to take more money for less [health] coverage for my family and take away overtime pay.”
Without some extra compensation, he said, “guys aren’t going to do that when you get a late night call and you have to show up, and it’s freezing cold out. Maybe the first couple of times they will. It’s the customer who’s going to suffer.”