Union Demonstrators Return to Verizon Center
Labor leaders say that talks on expired contract are not progressing, and layoffs loom.
Members of two unions representing thousands of Verizon workers in New Jersey had dozens of demonstrators gathered across from the Verizon Center at the end of the work day on Thursday, showing their discontent with eight months of unresolved contract negotiations and pending layoffs.
Thursday was a show of support with rallies down through Florida as talks continue on a new agreement to replace a union contract that expired on Aug. 6, 2011, said Bill Huber, president and business manager of New Jersey Local 827 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Workers in red shirts, and an inflated large balloon rat surrounded by signs accusing Verizon of corporate greed, were on property along North Maple Avenue, across from the Verizon facility at 1 Verizon Way. Bernards Township police were along North Maple Avenue, monitoring the gathering.
The union workers—who last summer conducted a strike lasting about 17 days— returned to their positions last Aug. 23, and have been attempting to close the gap in negotiations ever since, said Huber. Wearing a red shirt along with the others, Huber stood among union members from the IBEW and Communications Workers of America at about 5 p.m. on Thursday.
But, he said, "We still are under the old collective bargaining agreement."
"At some point in time, we think the company is posturing to lay down their last best and final offer," Huber said. He said the unions — representing about 5,600 wireline workers and a similar number of back office employees who are members of the CWA — fear the company will declare impasse in talks, and would no longer comply with the terms of the previous contract.
Under the agreement that brought the unions back on the job last Aug. 23, the employees still are covered by the previous benefits package and other terms of the contract that expired in August, Huber said in January.
On Thursday, Huber said contract talks have been going on for five days a week in Rye, N.Y., and he expected to return to the bargaining table on Friday morning.
Workers also wore slogans on shirts, carried signs and otherwise protested what Huber said are the pending April 3 layoffs of 336 out of 354 union employees within New Jersey who work on repairing phone lines connected by copper wires. Huber said many of those customers are senior citizens, who have no interest in switching to the fiber optics phone connections that, according to Huber, are now being pushed upon customers whose copper wire landlines aren't working.
Those copper lines, unlike cell phones or fiber optic lines, do not rely on battery power during a power outage, Huber said.
Huber also accused Verizon of not been bargaining in good faith during negotiations.
Verizon's response to rally
Later in the evening, Richard Young, a spokesman for Verizon, responded with a statement that began, "The union’s various rallies and 'Day of Action' have no impact on the bargaining process. Verizon’s wireline business needs to make meaningful changes to its contracts in order to be competitive."
The Verizon statement said progress towards a new contract "can only be achieved through engagement at the bargaining table — not at a union rally."
The statement from Young affirmed that about 300 Verizon technicians in our “Verizon Connected Solutions” unit were "let go" about six weeks ago.
"With this workload in our wireline unit continuing to decline, we had to adjust our headcount to meet the downward trend," the statement said.
Huber and other employees at the site, said that points of contention include benefits, safety, salary and other main contract issues.
Full health benefits had been a major source of dispute in the negotiations, both sides have said repeatedly.
The workers, who continued to arrive after 5 p.m., had union leaders at the location showing support, including Charlie Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey AFL-CIO.
"We are here to support our affiliates," Wowkanech said. He said that Verizon had built its success in large part because of the many highly trained employees represented by the union.
He added that he is disappointed with Verizon on a personal basis, because the company had often asked for — and had received — the unions' support on regulatory issues that improved Verizon's position.
Both union leaders accused Verizon of corporate greed. Huber said that Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam earns as much as the combined annual salaries of all the copper line workers to be laid off.
Huber said the workers expect to return to rally by Verizon at some point in the future, but he did not specify when.