- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reading from prepared scripts and calling at predesignated times, retirees of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) are the newest recruits in the union’s strike against Verizon Communications, asked to flood service centers with complaints and questions to — in the words of one leader — “tie them up.”

The scripted calls are going to fiber-solution outlets, repair shops, maintenance and testing centers, and fiber-optic and digital subscriber line (DSL) centers to “keep them busy,” said Pat Welsh, president of the CWA Retired Members Council for District 1, which covers New York, New Jersey and New England. He described the calls as “electronic picketing” whose purpose is to “stop them from doing business.”

The CWA suggested the calls in emails to members of various Retired Members Council chapters in which the union said making the calls was something the retirees could do “right from your home” to support the union and those walking the picket lines. The emails contained sample questions for seven call centers, along with the telephone numbers for each and the best times to call.

The emails suggest that the retirees “be sure to stay on the call until a representative picks up and answers your questions,” all of which are scripted.

A Verizon spokesman described such calls as “childish” and “an act of sabotage on our customer-service centers.”

“Fictitious calls take away resources from when there is a legitimate complaint,” said spokesman Rich Young, noting that making such calls was “reckless behavior putting the lives of our customers at risk.”

Mr. Young said Verizon detected “suspicious calls” to the service centers but had not linked them to the CWA email.

Verizon has warned callers to its main service numbers that there may be significant delays because of the strike.

Candice Johnson, a spokeswoman for the union, said, “I don’t have any information about any message sent to retirees.”

Verizon workers also made their presence felt in person Thursday evening, holding a candlelight vigil outside the home of Chief Executive Officer Lowell McAdam. According to the Associated Press, the protesters chanted “What’s disgusting? Union busting” outside the Mendham, N.J., home. Police said the vigil passed without incident or violence.

About 35,000 CWA workers and 10,000 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) employees went on strike Aug. 7 after bargaining broke down over a new contract. Verizon wants major concessions from union employees over health insurance and pensions. Each side has accused the other of unfair labor practices.

The strike involves telephone field technicians, cable installers and call-center employees from Virginia to Massachusetts. It affects Verizon’s land-line telephone business and its FiOS television and Internet service. It does not involve Verizon Wireless.

A labor analyst said using retirees to make harassment calls was “electronic mischief,” but added that the tactic was “a borderline activity” that probably would be “risky behavior” for striking employees.

Michael LeRoy, law professor at the University of Illinois, described the strategy of using retirees as “clever.” He said the use of striking employees could subject them to sanctions, including termination, for interfering in Verizon’s business in a way possibly not protected by federal labor law.

“It is a very interesting wrinkle,” Mr. LeRoy said.

The Verizon call centers are being manned by management employees and others during the strike.

As part of the call-in plan, retirees in one example were encouraged to call a number for the Verizon repair center at 10 a.m. and again at 2 p.m., saying the telephone line to the house “is on the ground and the kids are playing with it, making it a very dangerous situation.”

The email, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, then tells the callers to “ask when someone will be out to address this critical issue” and to “disagree with any scheduled time given (if any).”

In another case, the email asks the retirees to call and ask for the rates for Verizon high-speed Internet and to “make the representative run through all of the rates during the call.”

In another scenario, the email asks the retirees to call the number for business DSL or high-speed Internet and say, “I am having trouble connecting to the Internet.” It goes on to say: “If you are not a Verizon DSL customer, wait for them to inform you that you are not a DSL customer and initiate next call on the script.”

Mr. Welsh, who said the union first used the tactic of phoning the call centers in 1989, said he got an email about retirees making calls from the national retired members office and passed it on to the local chapters in his district. He estimated that 4,000 retired CWA members probably got the email in New England, New York and New Jersey. He said he heard back from some who had made calls, and they had kept Verizon officials “on the phone for 15 minutes.”

It was not clear Thursday whether delays at the call centers were caused by the retirees’ campaign or because inexperienced employees were answering the phones. The Washington Times got mixed results making a suggested 3 p.m. call to a center that tests circuits — two of the listed numbers were answered, and two others were not.

Two other calls by The Times to repair centers went to automated answering systems, neither of which was transferred after 10-minute waits.

• Chuck Neubauer can be reached at cneubauer@washingtontimes.com.

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