- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The issue of job security loomed over contract talks at Verizon yesterday as labor unions bargained past a strike deadline with the largest provider of local and wireless telephone service in the United States.

Telephone operators and technicians from Virginia to Maine reported to work as scheduled, despite the expiration of a three-year contract at midnight Saturday.

Verizon Communications spokesman Eric Rabe said the company’s negotiators want to reach an agreement as soon as possible.

“Making progress and having an agreement are two different things,” Mr. Rabe said. “We need to get an agreement. We’re going to stay with it and keep working on it.”

Major questions are how layoffs would be handled and whether workers laid off can take jobs in other parts of the company.

Verizon’s local phone service business is shrinking, while growth areas are in wireless and high-speed Internet — separate divisions of the company that are not highly unionized.

Job security is the issue that has been “focused on for a good part” of the discussions at the negotiating table, Jim Spellane, spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents 18,000 Verizon workers, said yesterday.

The other key issue at the talks has been health care. Verizon, like other companies facing soaring health costs, wants employees to assume more of the burden.

The importance of job protection was driven home for Verizon workers just three weeks ago when an arbitrator ordered the company to rehire 2,300 people in New York state who had been laid off in December.

After the ruling, a happy union official joked that “my life will be in jeopardy” if he were ever to give away contract language on job security.

The arbitrator’s decision increased tension at labor negotiations and undermined the company’s cost-cutting efforts.

Verizon argued that the layoffs were justified because of a weak economy and tougher competition from rival companies and new technologies. The arbitrator said that those trends did not justify the layoffs.

The bulk of the 78,000 union employees seeking a new contract are with the Communications Workers of America, whose vice president called the recent decision giving back the New York workers their jobs “the greatest victory in my lifetime” for phone company employees.

Verizon cut 18,000 jobs in 2002, mainly through attrition and voluntary buyouts.

If the unions strike, some local telephone service for Verizon customers in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic region could be affected.

The company says customers making regular long-distance and local calls should not have trouble.

The company says disruptions of phone service should be avoidable, with about 30,000 managers and outside contract workers prepared to take over.

But delays or disruptions could occur for repairs and new installations of phone and Internet service, and for calls to customer service centers.

A strike in 2000, which lasted 18 days, caused a backlog of about 250,000 repair requests and new orders for Verizon.

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