Last Friday telecommunications giant Verizon came to a tentative agreement with Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and after spending seven weeks on the picket lines, nearly 40,000 Verizon workers returned to work Wednesday.
Assignment administrator Rhonda*, who works in the Duke Street office in Lancaster, said she was vacuuming her car in preparation for her trip to a family reunion when she heard the about the agreement Friday afternoon. This week, she’s in Kentucky. She watched the strike end from afar.
“I saw pictures of people going back to work; they were all walking in together, wearing red shirts,” she said proudly.
The workers haven’t yet voted to ratify the agreement, and though all received a rundown of some of the changes from the last agreement via email, it’s not set in stone yet and some of the details of the agreement are not fully hashed out, said Rich, a 20-year service tech and local rep for CWA. “I want to see all the fine print,” Rich said on Wednesday.
He noted that not everyone is content with the tentative agreement and not everyone is happy to go back to work even before seeing it.
Unions members will vote on the agreement by Friday, June 17.
The agreement, which will expire in August of 2019 (it’s a four-year agreement, but is backdated to last August), was reached after Labor Secretary Thomas Perez intervened. In a conference call with members of CWA District 2-13 (which covers Delaware, D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia) and District 1 (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont), District 2-13 CWA International Vice President Ed Mooney expressed his gratitude for Perez’s role in the negotiations.
Mooney recalled Perez’s comment that “this relationship (between Verizon and the unions) is absent of trust on either side.”
Sardonically, he said, “That was no shocking news to (either party).”
The tentative agreement includes a 10.9 percent raise in a little over three years, a reversal of some major contracting initiatives, the addition of 1,300 call-center jobs in the mid-Atlantic and northeast regions, and measures that will prevent workers from having to move or commute farther from their communities. In addition, nearly 70 Verizon Wireless retail workers will be included in the contract — a first. See a brief breakdown of some new provisions in the agreement here.
I asked several local Verizon workers how they felt about the situation. Here are their thoughts.
Impact on families
Nick, a mechanic with Verizon, on Monday night said he was happy with what he knows of the new agreement, though he knows his health insurance costs will increase by $20 per week when the contract is ratified. It won’t increase by as much as he feared, he said. Insurance is a crucial issue for Nick and his family because his young son needs treatment for ADHD and Nick has “bad hips.”
“And, my wife’s expecting,” he added.
He noted that there were no changes to the old contract regarding the company’s decision to increase the distance a worker can be made to commute, which partly pleases and partly worries him because at least Verizon didn’t loosen the wording, but in theory this means he could, in the near future, be moved up to 35 miles farther from his home and be burdened with an even longer commute.
Nick pointed out another issue that’s been affecting service techs and others who work outside: long-term service difficulties.
During a long-term service difficulty, workers can be forced to work overtime to the point that they are on seven days a week, 12 hours a day, for months on end, Rich said.
This and up to eight hours of forced overtime during a period not deemed a service difficulty can severely cut into people’s family time, he said.
During the conference call, Mooney told union members that in the new contract there will be an annual limit of 10 weeks during which a long-term service difficulty can be declared.
In the past, Rich said, Verizon has essentially engineered long-term service difficulties lasting up to six months by laying off workers. He said he was pleased that there will now be a requirement that workers have at least one day off per week during long-term service difficulties.
The eight-hour cap on forced overtime is still there, he said, but he never had much hope that would change.
Keeping jobs local
The workers won major gains in the area of job security, which for many was the main concern.
Mooney said that all of the call centers in District 1 and 2-13 threatened with closure would remain open. This means that people who work in the Duke Street office won’t have to travel farther for work, Rhonda said, a fact that makes her very happy. The company was planning to move her division to Harrisburg, she said.
Another gain for call-center workers is that they will be given a higher proportion of calls from their home areas – that is, those calls will not go to centers in the Philippines or India.
Rhonda speculated that Verizon’s willingness to add those jobs might be related to a decision to expand profitable Fios networks in the region, and a subsequent shift to local infrastructure.
“They cancelled our insurance with hopes to break us,” Nick said. “It’s tough. They’ll do everything they can to break your spirit … But we have prevailed. We got under their skin.”
Sue, who works in collections in the Lancaster call center and serves as a steward for her branch of CWA, stressed the necessity for any worker of standing up to one’s employer.
“It’s never wrong to ask for what you want or let them know what your expectations are,” she said. “There’s no need to conform to what society says and just take what they give you. There’s power in numbers.”
Rhonda recalled a tough moment during the strike.
“One night I was out there and it was bitter cold. I mean raw. And I just said to myself, I am not just doing this for me, I’m doing this for all Americans. If we allow them to break us, we’ll continue to have a downward spiral in pay and job security in this country.”
Early Wednesday morning before her first day of work at Verizon in seven weeks, Sue said that she expected to be busy because there would be a large backlog of work. “But I can only take one call at a time,” she said. “We’ll work through it. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.”
*Last names have been omitted to protect workers from retaliation.
Editor’s Note: The article was originally published over at the Lancaster 15Now blog. Julia Scheib is a member of Lancaster 15Now and reports on the fight for 15 from the perspective of the activists and workers on the front lines of the movement. You can email Julia at firstname.lastname@example.org. Julia reported on the NYC Climate March for Raging Chicken Press back in September 2014. Welcome back, Julia!