The Verizon Labor Battle: As Strike Continues, Customers Report Delays and Disruptions to Service

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to labor news. As a strike by 45,000 Verizon workers approaches the two-week mark, the company’s customers are beginning to feel the impact on its services. Consumers are reporting significant delays in booking Verizon technicians to fix and install landline telephone, internet and cable television services.

Verizon’s senior vice president for consumer and mass business markets, Christopher Creager, tried to downplay the strike’s efficacy. Creager told the New York Times, quote, "The vast majority of our customers are not seeing any impact." Verizon officials acknowledged, however, that they had declined any new orders for the first two weeks of the strike so they could focus on serving their existing customers.

AMY GOODMAN: The strike was called after Verizon pushed for the workers to accept far-reaching concessions, including a pension freeze and fewer sick days. The company also asked workers to contribute far more toward their health coverage. Meanwhile, Verizon made $22.5 billion in profits over the past four-and-a-half years and has paid its top five CEOs $258 million also in the past four years.

Verizon has tried to step up pressure on the strikers by saying it will cut off their medical, dental and optical benefits on August 31st. Union representatives have described the new threat as a scare tactic and have vowed to continue fighting. This is Bob Master, spokesperson for Communications Workers of America.

BOB MASTER: You know, this is typical in a lengthy strike. We’re prepared for it. We have procedures in place to ensure that all of our members’ healthcare needs will be taken care of. And if Verizon thinks that this is going to intimidate anybody, you know, it just really isn’t going to work.

JUAN GONZALEZ: To talk about the Verizon strike and the state of jobs in America, we’re joined by Steven Greenhouse. He’s a labor and workplace reporter for the New York Times who has written extensively about the Verizon strike and other labor disputes. He is also the author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Steve.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Nice to be here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, your latest article is talking about the impact on customers and consumers of Verizon of the strike.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: In a labor confrontation like this, typically management tries to say the strike isn’t having much of an effect, it’s hardly affecting customers; the union says because 45,000 people have walked out—a whole lot of people, the largest strike in four years—it’s really affecting customers. I have a story in today’s New York Times where I quote several customers saying, you know, they face big delays in getting landlines fixed, in getting new services installed. And that seems to show that the company might be exaggerating when it says that it really is having minimal effect.

The strike is, in many ways, a classic confrontation. The company, though it’s quite profitable, in ways wants to take advantage of the weak economy and is really trying to wrest some far-reaching concessions from the union. The union says, "Wait a second. This company is so profitable, why in the world are they trying to get all these concessions?" The company says, you know, "You 45,000 workers who are on strike are in this less successful traditional landline division that’s not as profitable, so," they argue, "we need you to agree to numerous concessions to help remain competitive and to help improve profitability in the division." Again, the union says, "Wait, the overall company, not just the traditional landline division, but the Verizon Wireless division, are extremely profitable." And they say that the company is trying to, you know, assault the middle class and is following a low-road policy that the unions involved say many other employers have engaged in to weaken unions and to cut wages and benefits.

AMY GOODMAN: We certainly know here at Democracy Now!, in trying to fix some lines. We were just given a date of fix—and our lines are critical to what we do as a communications company—of September 14th. This is a month from now.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this issue of the landline division being not as profitable, because we’re not talking it’s losing money, it’s just not—it’s about 10 percent, nine percent profit on the landline division. But that landline division also includes Verizon’s new video service, FiOS, which is—obviously they had to spend a lot of money to invest in it to get it going, but it’s also rapidly growing. And, of course, the unions are saying the potential down the line for FiOS and the landline division of Verizon is enormous. It’s just that it’s not making quite as much profit right now as the wireless phones are.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: You’re right, Juan. You know, the two sides have very different narratives. The company keeps saying the landline division is struggling. It doesn’t talk so much about its very promising FiOS division, which is—you know, Verizon has invested billions and billions of dollars in laying fiber-optic cable for cable and internet services for millions of homeowners. And so, in ways, the outlet for the landline division is looking up. And the union says, "Don’t forget that company. You know, it’s not just the traditional home landlines that are part of this division. We also help build FiOS."

And moreover, the union keeps saying that the wireless division relies heavily on the old copper wire systems in the ground, that that helps transmit the many calls going between towers. And they say it’s wrong for the company to just look at one phase of its operation. They say it’s one connected entity and that the union should not be penalized just because the traditional home phone segment isn’t doing as well as it used to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Steven Greenhouse, how significant is this strike?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: I think it’s quite a big strike, quite an important strike. You know, the Communication Workers of America, which is on strike along with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the CWA is one of the most sophisticated unions in the country in terms of mobilizing its shop stewards, getting people out on the picket lines, really educating it members. When I interview rank-and-file people here, they really know their stuff. I mean, I’ve covered a lot of strikes, but these people are really well informed.

What’s hard for the union is it’s not clear—you know, it’s not a highly visible strike like a baseball strike or a subway strike or the UPS strike a few years back. So I think it’s been hard for the unions to really capture public’s attention to pressure the companies.

But, you know, if Verizon succeeds in winning these major concessions against these two fairly powerful, quite sophisticated unions, that will be another blow to organized labor. But if the CWA and the IB—and the Electrical Workers are able to prevent the concessions, then labor can say, "See, we’ve helped stop this low-road trend where companies are trying to take away—you know, reduce wages and take away benefits."

JUAN GONZALEZ: And speaking of blows to organized labor, the situations out in the Midwest—obviously, we’ve covered extensively what’s been happening in Wisconsin and Ohio, and recently now the Republican governor of Ohio has blinked on the attempts to strike out at the labor movement in Ohio. And your sense of what’s going on in Ohio right now and its importance in terms of this ongoing assault?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Governor Walker in Wisconsin got a lot of attention for pushing through legislation to eviscerate collective bargaining in his state. But in many ways, Governor John Kasich in Ohio pushed through a law that was even tougher towards unions. So the unions have really gotten their act together, and they are pushing a recall—not a recall, a repeal effort for this November to have Ohioans vote to repeal the law.

And I think Kasich sees that he’s probably going to lose that vote, and it’s going to be very embarrassing to him and the Republicans, so he’s kind of sued for peace. And if you know Kasich, he’s a very tough guy, so for him to say, "We really need to negotiate to try to find a compromise to prevent the repeal vote," I think that shows that he fears it’s going down. And he worries that if the—

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: —if the repeal vote wins, it’s going to really hurt the Republicans in 2012. 

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