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Verizon Workers Fight Rural Telecom Redlining In New England


Maine, and New Hampshire are waging a grassroots campaign against Verizon’ abandonment of “low-value” landline customers in northern New England.

 

Verizon’s $2.7 billion sale of local “access lines”– part of its older copper wire network–would sever these members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) from a 12-state regional bargaining unit with a history of militant strikes and contract campaigns.

 

If the deal is approved by the states involved and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the buyer announced on Jan. 17, Fairpoint Communications, will be under financial pressure to weaken existing Verizon contract language on work rules, pensions, medical benefits, and job security. Some of the highest paid union jobs in northern New England would also be vulnerable to contracting out.

 

LANDLINE SELL OFF

 

Knowing that they have to broaden the appeal of their “Stop- the- Sale” campaign beyond telephone workers and their families, CWA Local 1400 and IBEW Locals 2320, 2326, and 2327 are stressing the wider social impact of rural “telecom redlining.” They’ve highlighted the fact that access to high-speed broadband connections is already quite limited in the region.

 

Verizon wants to invest the proceeds from local access line sales like this one in New England in its fast- growing (and largely non- union) wireless business and the costly fiber optic cable network it is building to bring a combined package of video, internet, and phone services to business and residential customers in big cities and affluent suburbs elsewhere in the country. (Only a handful of northern New England communities–all in southern New Hampshire–were even been wired for this “FIOS” service, before Verizon decided not to seek local or statewide franchising approval to offer it in competition with local cable companies.)

 

“Verizon’s landline sell-off is yet another example of a race-to- the-bottom economy,” says Verizon customer service rep and CWA Local 1400 Vice President Mike O’Day, who works in Burlington, Vt.. “It will adversely affect our jobs and the quality and reliability of local phone service throughout the whole region. Vermonters will be at the mercy of a small, highly-leveraged North Carolina-based company that will try to make a quick profit for its investors.”

 

Fairpoint is only 10% unionized and currently owns less than 300,000 access lines in rural parts of 18 states. Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire would add 1.5 million more to its holdings. Despite employing only 900 employees in the entire country right now, Fairpoint is claiming that it will create 600 new jobs in northern New England– a 20 percent increase in the existing Verizon workforce — if the sale is approved. No other telecom sale, merger, acquisition, or spin-off in recent memory has produced such a result; most such transactions lead to job cuts instead. Union critics are also questioning the company's promise of “further investment,” when Verizon, a $100 billion company with far deeper pockets, has failed to meet its own past broadband upgrade commitments.

 

CWA Local 1400 chief steward Darlene Stone, a Verizon customer service rep, points out that there has also been a big increase in service quality complaints by phone customers in Hawaii since Verizon sold its holdings there two years ago to the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm.

 

At a Feb. 12 meeting in Burlington, arranged and presided over by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Stone and other CWA and IBEW local leaders questioned Fairpoint CEO Gene Johnson and COO Peter Nixon about the company’s not-so “labor friendly” record. They challenged Fairpoint’s recent movement of unionized customer service rep work from an IBEW- represented subsidiary in upstate New York to its non-union call center in Maine. They also confronted the FP executives about the union-busting campaign conducted by another FP subsidiary, in Washington state last year. That management effort turned an IBEW card majority into a 4- vote NLRB representation election defeat.

 

GRASSROOTS LOBBYING

 

To mobilize public opposition to Verizon-Fairpoint deal, O’Day, Stone, and other Verizon workers have met with or collected letters of support from all three northern New England state governors, eight U.S. Senators and Congressmen, and key state legislative leaders. They have protested the proposed sale at marches and rallies and have organized a series of rank-and-file “Lobby Day” events this winter to bring their message to each state capitol.

 

On Saturday, March 3 in Maine, IBEW and CWA members from throughout the region are holding a major Stop-the-Sale rally in Portland.

 

Working with state and local central labor councils, consumer groups, and workers rights advocates, Stop-the- Sale activists have intervened in Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire regulatory proceedings on whether those state’s should approve the deal. They are demanding that public hearings be held throughout each state, so labor and consumers can challenge Fairpoint’s adequacy as a successor employer and telecom service provider.

 

Union members involved are also operating a campaign website (www.stop-the-sale.org) and linking their regional activities to a national CWA-initiated campaign for telecom policy reform called, “Speed Matters,” which seeks “High Speed Internet For All.”

 

“We are not going to let Verizon turn the information super highway into a dirt road in New England, ” vows IBEW Local 2320 business manager Glenn Brackett.

 

[Steve Early works for CWA District 1 in New England. For further information on Speed Matters, including a CWA policy paper, brochure, and a blog about "internet access for all," go to www.speedmatters.org. For Labor Notes subscription information, see www.labornotes.org.] 

 

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