- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2000

Telephone workers striking against Verizon Communications are beginning to look for other means of income as hopes fade for reaching a new contract this week.

Members of the Communication Workers of America in the Greenbelt, Md., area met with representatives of two temporary-help agencies yesterday. The 87,200 members of the CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hit the picket line at 12:01 a.m. Sunday when their contract expired.

The weekend ended with optimism that an agreement would be reached within 24 hours, but the talks hit a snag Monday and have not progressed since.

"The process is a two-way street. So far the unions have not been willing to agree on a contract that allows us the flexibility we must have to meet the needs and demands of customers better than any other high-tech telecommunications company," said Harry Mitchell, a spokesman for Verizon, which formed when Bell Atlantic Co. completed its purchase of GTE Corp. June 30.

The union will not budge on its requests to cease forced overtime, relieve stressful working conditions for call-center workers, and to have an opportunity to unionize the workers at Verizon's wireless operation.

Although a majority of Verizon's traditional land-line employees are union members, only 60 of the 32,000 wireless workers are.

"These are issues we feel must be addressed," said Jeff Miller, CWA spokesman. "But we are still here. We haven't broken up talks, but no progress is reported today."

The company says it needs flexibility in determining wages for wireless workers because of the rapidly changing nature of the field. It also says the employees, if they want a union, should have a secret-ballot election, instead of the union's preference of allowing them to sign authorization cards.

Yet as picketing at nearly 600 sites in the District of Columbia and 12 Eastern states from Maine to Virginia continues, workers started worrying more about money than unionization.

About 150 members of CWA Local 2108 came to their membership meeting early yesterday to meet with temp-agency representatives, who say it won't be hard to find them short-term jobs.

"Are you kidding me? Especially telecommunications companies in Northern Virginia and Bethesda will be tickled to death to have these people," said Peggy Perkins, a recruiter with Sparks Personnel Services, an agency that specializes in clerical and some technical jobs.

Large customer-service centers in the area are potential employers for the striking workers. "And there are lots of them around the Beltway," Miss Perkins said.

The agency has about 300 jobs a day to offer temporary workers. A Verizon worker who interviewed yesterday could be working as soon as today, she said.

The strike's timing is good, she added, because students who filled temp positions during the summer are returning to school, so the striking workers have even higher chances of finding work quickly.

"The way the economy is right now, there is more work than workers," said Brad Tyler, a recruiter with Labor Ready, an agency that specializes in finding work for construction, industrial and warehouse workers.

Mr. Tyler said the agency optimistically could employ 360 of the striking workers. Most of them would be offered clerical or manual-labor positions. Jobs for engineers are scarce, he said.

"The problem is not whether I have work for them, but whether they'll make the concession of working for less," Mr. Tyler said. "Most of these people have been working for $15 to $30 an hour, and the jobs I have are $7 to $15 an hour."

Marcus Chambers, a technician at a Greenbelt Verizon center who moved to the area for the job, said less money is better than no money.

"Because I'm looking for an apartment right now, I'll accept any job that will pay what I need," he said.

Another striking worker, Tichelle Hartridge, isn't as desperate. Her husband works, but she has a 3-year-old child, so she hopes to find supplemental income while the strike continues.

A service-support clerk, she is optimistic she will find work "for a certain time."

"But hopefully, the strike won't be for more than a couple of weeks," she said.

As negotiations drag on, some of Verizon's 25 million customers are continuing to face delays in operator and directory assistance, and repair and new-service orders are piling up.

A month ago, for example, Verizon had 36,000 repair orders. Yesterday, there were 82,000, up from Tuesday's 76,000, Mr. Mitchell said.

While pressure on both side escalates, picketers and Verizon managers are starting to get nasty.

Verizon said it has faced more than 400 incidents of vandalism to its facilities and managers have been injured from bottles, eggs, and stones thrown at them by protesters.

Mr. Mitchell said 24 strikers have been arrested.

The unions say the incidents are not strike-related. They also say managers have sideswiped picketing workers while driving to work.

Striking workers in Newport News, Va., yesterday began following repair trucks to customers' homes and then walking mini-picket lines on their sidewalks.

Verizon's shares fell 5 percent yesterday, hitting a 13-year low as they closed at $40.38 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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