- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS

About 78,000 workers at Verizon are working without a contract, amid substantial progress at the negotiating table, as two labor unions bargain over job security for the rank and file at the largest provider of local and wireless phone service in the United States.

Telephone operators and technicians from Virginia to Maine are reporting to work, despite the expiration of a three-year contract over the weekend.

A federal mediator was overseeing talks on issues such as future layoffs and the prospects for workers getting 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.

“We are making significant progress … although a few outstanding issues remain to be resolved,” the Communications Workers of America said late Sunday. Talks resumed yesterday.

The CWA represents the bulk of the 78,000 workers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers about 18,000.

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

Just three weeks ago an arbitrator ordered the company to rehire 2,300 workers in New York state who had been laid off in December, ratcheting up tension at the labor negotiations and undermining the company’s cost-cutting efforts.

The CWA’s vice president called the arbitrator’s decision “the greatest victory in my lifetime” for phone company employees.

In view of the arbitrator’s ruling in New York, Verizon has brought back about 1,100 laid-off Verizon employees in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts who had similar complaints with other arbitrators.

The company’s view was that the layoffs were justified because of a weak economy and tougher competition from rival companies and new technologies.

But the arbitrator in New York disagreed, saying layoffs should be restricted to examples specified in the now-expired agreement — for example, the loss of a major contract.

Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe says “we need the kind of authority we thought we had” regarding layoffs before the arbitrator’s ruling.

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

If the unions go on strike, some local telephone service for Verizon customers in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic region could be affected. The company insists that customers making regular long-distance and local calls should not have trouble.

The company says disruptions of phone service should be avoided 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.

Shares were up $1.46 to close at $35.84 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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