Labor talks are hung up over phone-industry future

Verizon faces 87,000 strikers who draw a line in silicon, trying to organize newer, high-tech divisions.

With crossed wires and service calls building up from Maine to Virginia, both sides in the Verizon telephone strike appear to be digging in for a second week in what some are calling the "strike of the new century."

Pitched as a gargantuan battle of the new high-tech economy versus old-time labor, the strike puts 87,000 workers on picket lines and about as many repair-seeking customers on hold. For the union, issues range from traditional job security and overtime to the right to organize Verizon's fast-growing nonunion sector.

Labor leaders say the talks could define their movement's future, while Verizon says what's really at stake is its ability to compete in the fast-evolving world of telecommunications.

While experts resist the high-pitched rhetoric on both sides, they say the strike highlights a pivotal issue: how labor will adapt as America shifts from the post-industrial to the global Information Age.

Next-century issues

"I call it the strike of the 21st century, because it demonstrates the new context in which labor unions have to operate," says Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

By taking on Verizon, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) are tackling a company that is struggling to reshape itself after several domestic and international mergers. Indeed, the strike coincides with Verizon's effort to publicize its new name to consumers familiar with the old names Bell Atlantic and GTE.

The company must also combine traditional union workers with newer, nonunion employees. All this at a time when technology is changing so fast that even experts can't say what the industry will look like just four or five years from now. Key areas of competition and innovation include wireless services and delivery of broadband information such as Internet access.

Verizon executives say that's why they need maximum flexibility and balk at the unionizing effort. The CWA wants the right to try to unionize wireless-division workers via a simple, voluntary checkoff of a union card, without company interference.

That tactic, using contract bargaining as a way to leverage future organizing, has emerged over the past few years as unions became frustrated with the lengthy, legal organizing process required by the National Labor Relations Board. Already, it has helped unions gain ground at AT&T in a strike two years ago and in other recent job actions.

The CWA has also organized several thousand workers at SBC Communications and Bell South. Union president Morton Bahr has made it clear he wants more than a foot in the door. He wants a seat at the table to represent workers as the industry evolves.

But Mr. Bahr has already found some communications workers standing in his way - people like Jim Betty, a worker at a major high-tech company who preferred that his real name not be used.

Wary of unions

"I personally don't like unions. They have a tendency to be inflexible, too standardized, and they slow things down," says Mr. Betty. "People here are flexible, mobile. They like to change careers - I've done it several times."

Betty makes a good salary and has a substantial benefits package. He also knows that his skills are in demand right now. So he can bargain pretty effectively for himself.

But not all the workers in the new high-tech world are so well positioned. Many line workers, cable installers, systems analysts, phone operators, and others find themselves doing well, but not as well as some of their union counterparts.

That's where the CWA is looking for new opportunities. Franoise Carr, a labor-market specialist at the Harvard University, says the union is well positioned to take advantage of them.

"This union has a history of dealing with a lot of odd employment arrangements, for instance, contracting out," she says. "But it's also got lots of experience with technical workers. They understand the need to deal with the new reality."

Ms. Carr says the union would not undertake a strike of this size if it didn't see issues that the company's technical workers want addressed.

Mr. Chaison agrees. And he points out that while the CWA proudly calls itself "the Union for the Information Age," it represents diverse workers, from prison guards and social workers in Texas to newspaper reporters in California.

"If they can make inroads into the wireless workers at Verizon, it will show that they've managed to appeal to high-tech workers," says Chaison. "But is it make or break for the union? I don't think so."

Still, picketers seem determined. Yesterday, workers staged a large rally in New York, and the strike has included acts of vandalism and harassment of managers.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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