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Contingency plans made in Verizon dispute

August 01, 2003|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

As Verizon Communications and union leaders continued talks in hopes of avoiding a strike this weekend, both sides also were making contingency plans in case a contract cannot be hammered out in time.

To prevent or minimize disruptions for customers, Verizon is training managers along the East Coast and elsewhere to be able to fill in for striking workers, said Sharon Shaffer, a Verizon spokeswoman in Philadelphia.

Managers helped during the last strike, though some backlogs did accumulate for installation orders, said Harry Mitchell, a Verizon spokesman in New York City.

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"We learned a lot from the 2000 strike," he said.

One thing the company did was improve its Web site (www.verizon.com) to allow customers to place orders for voice mail or caller ID so a computer can initiate those programs for the customer, Mitchell said.

If union leaders vote to go on strike this weekend, Maryland and West Virginia Verizon workers could end up picketing at four Tri-State-area locations, said Brian Bibbee, president of Communications Workers of America Local 2105 in Williamsport.

Union members voted overwhelmingly about two weeks ago to give union leaders authorization to call a strike, Bibbee said. Union leaders aren't expected to make a decision whether to strike until after the contract expires at midnight Saturday, he said.

The current three-year union contract started after the 2000 strike, which lasted 18 days, Mitchell said.

The four preliminary picket sites are garage facilities at 223 E. Memorial Blvd. in Hagerstown and 117 Tavern Road in Martinsburg, W.Va.; an office for clerical and engineering workers at 1710 Underpass Way; and a facility for assembling electronic components at 5185 Williamsport Pike near Falling Waters, W.Va., Bibbee said.

Local 2105 represents approximately 214 Verizon employees in Washington County, and Berkeley and Morgan counties in West Virginia, Bibbee said. Union members include clerical workers, auto mechanics, cable splicers, installers, engineers and central office technicians, he said.

The contract set to expire this weekend also is with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Bibbee said. The contract represents workers in 12 states and Washington, D.C.

Although the contract covers workers in Pennsylvania, Verizon Communications does not provide service in Franklin or Fulton counties in Pennsylvania, Shaffer said.

Issues being negotiated include wages, job security, health-care costs and the unionization of other Verizon operations, such as the wireless division, Bibbee said.

"To this point, every proposal the company has put on the table asks for us to give something back," Bibbee said.

The union's position is that "as long as the company is profitable, we shouldn't even be talking about concessions," Bibbee said.

Mitchell said that's a fairly common union argument, but one that is rooted in the past. Verizon is facing more competition and needs to tighten its belt, he said.

A major issue for employees is that Verizon wants a bigger contribution from employees for health-care costs, which will affect employees' income, Bibbee said.

Mitchell said union members don't pay monthly premiums toward their health-care costs or pensions. Employees pay 5 percent of total health-care costs compared with a 25 percent average among U.S. companies, he said.

"We're looking for a little bit of help from employees to rein in runaway health-care costs," Mitchell said.

Mitchell said Verizon's employees are among the best-compensated in the telecommunications industry and will continue to be once a new contract is approved. As an example, he said technicians in Maryland earn an average of $80,000 in annual wages and benefits before overtime.

Bibbee said the company's contract proposal would make it easier to lay off employees.

Recent reports that Verizon will eliminate up to 5,000 jobs this year have been misleading, Mitchell said. Verizon will cut costs equivalent to 5,000 jobs, but the cuts won't be all jobs, he said.

A specific plan hasn't been determined but a portion of the cost-cutting would come through eliminating jobs, Mitchell said. Personnel cuts would be made through attrition and voluntary buyout offers, he said.

"We need for us to become a smaller company due to the competition we're facing," Mitchell said.

Verizon's traditional business of wired phones or land lines has been shrinking because of competition from other companies offering phone service and other means of communication such as cell phones, e-mail and instant messaging, Mitchell said.

Last year in Maryland, Verizon lost 51/2 percent of the land lines it had served, Mitchell said.

"We've been losing lines at the clip of about 31/2 percent each quarter for the past several quarters," he said.

As of the end of 2002, Verizon served 4.2 million customer lines in Maryland and 850,000 lines in West Virginia, Mitchell said.

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