Unions, Verizon Are Miles Apart As Deadline Nears

With this backdrop, Verizon appears headed for a strike next month, which
could hurt its customers by delaying phone repairs and installation work.

Both sides say they're working to avert a strike in talks that began June
23. But with three weeks to go before contracts expire Aug. 2, their
positions seem miles apart.

"Certainly the appearances are that there's going to be (a strike)," said
Vern Kennedy, chief executive of Broadview Networks, a reseller of Verizon

Kennedy's company is trying to put extra capacity in place to prepare for
a Verizon work stoppage. "That (installation) work is probably going to
come to a screeching halt in early August," he said.

A strike could deepen service problems that have been nagging at the
region's dominant phone company, said Thomas Tarapacki, Buffalo director
of telecommunications. State regulators said in May that Verizon is taking
longer to repair down lines, missing targets that call for most service to
be restored within two days.

"If there is a strike we're really concerned about the impact on service
quality," Tarapacki said. The Buffalo Common Council held a hearing late
last month about the state of Verizon's phone network in the city,
focusing on deficiencies.

When Verizon's labor contracts expired in 2000, a two-week strike hit
Western New York. Managers worked in union members' places, but the
walkout left a backlog of 2,000 unfinished repairs, two or three times
normal, the company said.

Verizon has two major unions with about 1,100 members in the Buffalo area.
The Communications Workers of America Local 1122 repairs and installs
lines, while the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 2213
represents customer service workers. Both unions' agreements expire Aug.
2. The CWA expects to hold a strike authorization vote sometime in the
next two weeks, officials said.

With about 700,000 phone lines in Western New York, Verizon remains the
region's dominant communications company, according to the state Public
Service Commission. Upstart phone companies, cell phones and e-mail may
offer communication alternatives, but Verizon continues to supply about 80
percent of land-lines, according to the state Public Service Commission.

In addition, reseller-competitors such as Broadview depend on Verizon to
make repairs and install lines for their customers.

"We hope they don't strike, but we have to be prepared in case they do,"
Kennedy said. His company is stepping up vigilance that Verizon doesn't
use the strike as an excuse to stop installation work for its competitors.

Even before the contract expiration, repair and installation work may slow
down as overtime is cut back, said Lisa Schnorr, spokeswoman for Choice
One Communications in Rochester. The company, one of the larger
competitive carriers operating in Buffalo, is also bracing for a possible
Verizon strike, she said.

"All the signs are that there's going to be a (work) stoppage," Schnorr

Orders to change existing service from one company to another - known as a
"hot cut" - are usually automated, leaving them relatively unaffected by
the strike, phone companies said. The delays will arise in repairs and in
the physical installation of new lines to a customer's property.

While resellers brace for a strike, it might be a good idea if customers
do as well, Verizon spokesman John Bonomo said. Firms that expect to need
new lines might order them in advance, as a precautionary move, he said.
So far, the company hasn't seen many customers making preparations in case
of a work stoppage.

Verizon and its unions both have much at stake in the contract talks that
will likely govern their relations for the next three years.

The phone company says it is being hit by the decline of the traditional
phone business, and needs labor flexibility to meet falling demand for
telephone lines.

"There are difficult issues to resolve - we need to lower our costs,"
Bonomo said. The company wants more flexible work rules, lower health care
expenses and reduced absenteeism, which it says costs $600 million a year.
The average union worker in New York makes $57,000 a year, not counting
overtime premiums, Bonomo said.

The company estimates that 40 percent of the traffic that used to cross
the traditional land-line voice network has shifted to wireless, e-mail
and other new technologies, spokesman Cliff Lee said.

"We're in a very different situation than we were three years ago," he
said, noting that the last strike happened during a boom time for the
industry. Verizon is also upset at regulatory price levels for reselling
its networks, saying the wholesale prices are subsidizing its competitors.

To the CWA and IBEW, "flexibility" is a euphemism for "give-backs." They
say Verizon's initial bargaining proposal called for a raft of
concessions, including a big shift in health care costs to workers.

"Verizon seems to have taken a very aggressive position in terms of what
they're going to go after," said Jim Sellane, spokesman for the IBEW.

The CWA is still smarting from layoffs of technicians that began in
December, in some places the first pink slips handed out by the phone
company since the 1940s. Verizon laid off 2,400 workers around New York,
about 100 of them in the Buffalo area.

The union has railed at the cuts, incensed that the ax fell while Verizon
made $4 billion in profit last year and paid chief executive Ivan
Seidenberg $9.5 million. In response, the CWA has gone to regulators and
lawmakers to pressure the company about declining levels of customer

The unions seek more job security and the ability to organize Verizon's
fast-growing wireless business. A nagging dispute left over from the 2000
contract is a union neutrality agreement at Verizon Wireless, majority
owned by Verizon. The union charges the company has broken promises of not
opposing union campaigns. Verizon says it wants the talks to focus on its
traditional phone business.

Despite the widely separated positions, the phone company said its
priority is to bridge the differences and reach an agreement before the
current contract expires.

"A strike is something we're working against - we do not want one," Bonomo

That would suit workers in Buffalo fine, said Jan Borman, president of CWA
Local 1122. "We are here to work," she said. "We do not want a strike."


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Link: http://www.unionvoice.org/ct/N7a83L61d7a9/buffalo_news