Thousands Of Verizon Workers Go On Strike As Contract Talks Stall
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
More than 36,000 Verizon workers went on strike this morning. They want better job security and a new labor contract for employees across the Northeast. Ilya Marritz from member station WNYC reports they're trying to preserve benefits in a rapidly-changing business.
ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: It was daybreak when hundreds of workers showed up in front of a Verizon building in Midtown Manhattan not to work but to picket.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We are officially on strike against this corporate greedy company called Verizon.
MARRITZ: The workers' contract expired last August. Now the unions that represent them, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, say negotiations for a new contract have broken down. There are plenty of obstacles - pensions, health care, outsourcing, the closing of call centers and out-of-state assignments. Rose Stone is a Verizon switch worker.
ROSE STONE: They want to take a lot of our benefits away, make us pay more medical. Meanwhile, the CEOs are getting raises and getting paid more and more and more. It's very unfair.
MARRITZ: For its part, Verizon says the average union worker is already making $130,000 a year in wages and benefits. Rich Young as a spokesman --
RICH YOUNG: On top of that, we've proposed 6 and half percent wage increase, increases to pensions, great quality health care and job security for many of these employees. The offer's on the table. The union needs to take its step in getting back to us.
MARRITZ: Clearly, union leaders feel they can get a better deal by forming picket lines. But talk to workers on those lines and you'll see the terrain is shifting. Tom Parisi is a field tech in Manhattan. This is his fifth strike in 20 years. And each time, the number of striking workers has gone down.
TOM PARISI: I think it was 1998, under collective bargaining we had probably close to 200,000 employees that were unionized.
MARRITZ: Today, it's fewer than 40,000.
PARISI: You definitely see, you know, it's less people, less power, numbers. You know, it's a strategy and it's working to some effect.
MARRITZ: Bill Stefandel, with the union, says workers have already made concessions. Now they need to hold the line.
BILL STEFANDEL: You know, in 2011, basically we started paying for our medical. And on the absence, we basically had unlimited sick time. And they narrowed us down to 10 days. Plus, there was other givebacks across the board back in 2011.
MARRITZ: Last year, Verizon's net income was almost $18 billion. But Verizon says it needs to cut costs. Ian Olgeirson, an analyst with SNL Kagan, says the company's landline business, maintained by union workers, is shrinking.
IAN OLGEIRSON: You can see a diminishing return from these legacy copper networks. The phone business has been under pressure not just for Verizon but for all of the telephone operators for more than a decade now.
MARRITZ: Meanwhile, Verizon's mobile phone business - with mostly nonunion workers - continues to grow. The company says it's doing its best to prevent interruptions to service. It's bringing in nonunion staff to work call centers, drive trucks and climb polls. Again, spokesman Rich Young.
YOUNG: They'll be coming through the northeast from all over the country. But they've gone through extensive training over the past year. We've created a specialized training center in Northern Virginia just for this problem.
MARRITZ: It may seem like Verizon has the upper hand, but one quirk of timing favors labor. In less than one week, New York holds its presidential primary. Hillary Clinton said she supports the strike, and Bernie Sanders showed up at a worker rally today. For NPR News, I'm Ilya Marritz in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.