Workers of the New World Unite A labor dispute at Verizon heralds increased labor tensions brought on by technological change. By Mark Boslet
The truce between labor and the new economy may be ending.
Last week, 85,000 union members were on the verge of striking at Verizon Communications (the company born from last month's Bell Atlantic - GTE merger). Their demands: greater access to jobs in the company's high-growth wireless, Internet services and broadband DSL divisions, along with higher pay, less job stress and more retirement security.
The legion of workers - 72,000 of whom are represented by the Communications Workers of America and 13,000 by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers - also want to limit Verizon's ability to contract those new jobs to lower-paid, nonunion workers. Whatever the outcome of the dispute, the tangled contract negotiations could prove a harbinger of struggles and strife to come, as old-economy workers vie for new-economy jobs.
The issues are critical not only for Verizon, but also for an entire telecommunications industry facing a wave of labor renegotiations in the year ahead. In the next year, contracts for more than 200,000 telecom workers will expire at BellSouth , SBC Communications and Qwest Communications (which completed its merger with US West in June).
The unrest at Verizon comes even as the telecom industry struggles to keep pace with rapid technological change. From their origins in switchboards and copper networks, companies in this sector are moving into wireless and broadband Net access. Despite the booming economy, unionized workers are concerned they're being denied their piece of the new-economy pie.
A labor dispute might seem out of place in the Internet Economy, where most employers worry more about filling jobs than about fending off union organizers.
And with the tightest labor market in years, most workers have felt little incentive to seek the shelter of collective bargaining. Indeed, Microsoft temps and janitors working the graveyard shift in Silicon Valley have been among the few visible examples of workers engaged in old-style labor tussles.
But that may be changing. Lucent, for example, which carries the legacy of a unionized workforce dating back to its Western Electric days, faces sharp competition from nonunionized rivals like Cisco Systems . Cisco is unlikely to unionize; Lucent, on the other hand, would only be following industry trends if it decided to create nonunionized divisions.
In telecom, the struggle has been years in the making. "Wireless communications is surging ahead [of traditional phone service] by a rate of 25 percent annually in the number of users, total revenues and total employment,'' CWA President Morton Bahr noted in a speech last April. "We must fight to make sure these new jobs are union jobs."
The following month, the CWA filed an unfair labor-practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board against AT&T , claiming the company refused to bargain under a contract signed two years earlier. That dispute was resolved when the telco agreed to ensure that its broadband workers can organize without penalty.
But AT&T's labor problems are hardly over. The NLRB issued a complaint May 31 against Ma Bell's broadband unit for intimidating workers at its Arlington, Texas, cable operation to suppress union-building activity. Besides telling workers they would lose their jobs or benefits by voting in the union, the company spied on employees, according to the complaint.
The debate is spilling over into related industries. In September the 633,000-strong CWA will merge with the 113,000-member International Union of Electronic Workers. The combined union would keep close watch on high-tech companies like Nortel Networks and Cisco, as those companies hire nonunion vendors to manufacture many of their lower-end parts and products.
Labor-management relations have changed along with the telecommunications industry. Organizers have devoted their energies to unionizing and bargaining at telcos like AT&T, BellSouth, Lucent and SBC at the same time that new-economy, predominately nonunion stalwarts such as Cisco, Nortel and WorldCom were rising to prominence. As Bahr puts it: "We can ignore these new developments or recognize our changed world."
Some telecom firms have already made efforts to bring unionized workers into new-economy positions, where tight labor pools make active recruiting a necessity. SBC, for instance, has allowed unionization in its wireless division, serving as a model for labor-management relations in the new era, according to the CWA.
But SBC may be an exception. The prospect of labor tensions is rising in the Internet Economy, even though to date they have been largely absent. Union organizers face an uphill battle organizing workers who have grown used to small perks - health club memberships, workplace massages and free soda - as well as major attractions like rapid advancement and the prospect of stock-option fueled wealth.
But in fact, those advantages may be inspiring some of the new rancor. Telecom workers envy younger dot-com employees who are raking in substantial salaries and stock options. And they see jobs in the new economy as "the only means to getting these rich rewards," says Kevin Baker, a labor historian and chief researcher of the book The American Century. As a result, he adds, more conflicts are likely.
In the round of negotiations expected to start next spring, the CWA and IBEW will continue to fight to make sure their members have an entree into new-technology work. At Verizon, the battle lines are drawn. The two unions went on strike at the company, then Bell Atlantic, for two days in 1998, winning a no-layoff clause - a victory hard to envision in the volatile world of the Internet - and improved pension benefits. A 17-week strike against Nynex (later merged into Bell Atlantic) in 1989 defeated the company's plan to force workers to pay health insurance premiums.
Union officials express fear that if they don't continue to organize wireless workers Verizon will shift those jobs to lower-paid, nonunion positions. Almost 80 percent of the more than 120,000 employees in the company's local phone operations are unionized, but only 46 of its 32,000 wireless workers belong to a union. Verizon has resisted allowing union workers to transfer into wireless, CWA's Johnson claims.
Not so, counters Verizon spokesman Steve Marcus. He says there is nothing to prevent the union from organizing workers at the company's wireless joint venture with Vodafone. What's more, Verizon has added more than 3,000 union jobs in its conventional telephone business this year, he notes, creating ample opportunities for union members.
The other former Bell companies similarly defend their records. Union workers have access to jobs at Bell South's wireless business, which nevertheless remains nonunionized, a spokesman says. The telco also offers employees a chance to seek jobs within its DSL division and to receive the necessary training.
To the CWA, that's not the point. The idea is to make sure that the new-technology jobs are union jobs. One of the central issues in the Verizon dispute is the expedited unionization process known as the "card check," in which workers can join a union if a majority signs cards expressing a desire to affiliate. Traditional unionizing votes can drag on for months and are often derailed by litigation.
The first telecom firm to agree to card-check union recognition was SBC. The CWA says it has since organized more than 5,000 workers at the company's nationwide wireless operations.
Workers on the Lines
Negotiations between the telcos and the unions could heat up in the next two years.
COMPANY TOTAL WORKERS UNION WORKERS* CURRENT CONTRACT EXPIRES BellSouth 99,000 52,000 August 2001 SBC Communications 219,000 118,000 March 2001 Qwest (US West) 71,000 38,000 August 2001 WorldCom 77,000 0 N/A Sprint 78,000 10,500 September 2001 AT&T 144,000 36,000 May 2002 Verizon 260,000 85,000 In negotiations * CWA and IBEW combined. Source: CWA and the companies listed