Verizon, Unions Extend Federal Mediation for Contract
'Significant key issues remain on the table,' union president said.
A federal mediator has extended contract talks between unions and Verizon, where union demonstrators have repeatedly demonstrated by the Basking Ridge headquarters, beyond Wednesday's deadline by with some reported progress.
"We are here this week. [in Washington, D.C.] We are still talking," said William Huber, president and business manager of IBEW Local 827, which represents about 5,600 wireline workers in New Jersey.
The latest document extends the negotiating process for another week until 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24, Huber said.
The unions and Verizon are in talks regarding a contract that expired on Aug. 6, 2011, leading to a strike last August by about 45,000 wireline and communications center workers in multiple states. The unions returned to work later that month, with both sides saying they would continue negotiations.
The Federal Mediation Conciliation Service Director, George H. Cohen, issued an updated statement on Wednesday regarding the joint negotiations with representatives from Verizon, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Communications Workers of America.
"The parties now have been engaged in intensive negotiations for three weeks under the auspices of myself and Director of Mediation Services
John Pinto," the statement read. "As previously reported, progress continues to be made, but, again, a number of core issues remain to be resolved. Pursuant to the mediators’ recommendation, the parties have agreed to continue their negotiations until concluded."
The IBEW New Jersey-based Local 827 also had reported on its website that in the past week, "progress" and then "more progress" had been made on moves to reach a settlement on a contract that expired last August.
"The negotiations have been constructive and some progress has been made, but significant key issues remain on the table," Huber said in a quote on the IBEW website.
With the strike's anniversary looming, the union and Verizon agreed to meet starting July 25 in Washington with the Federal Mediation Conciliation Service. A previous Aug. 9 statement from Cohen, issued last week when the parties had been negotiating for two weeks, said, "The negotiations continue to be constructive and progress continues to be made, but, again, a number of core issues remain to be resolved.
"Pursuant to the mediators’ recommendation, the parties have agreed to continue their negotiations until concluded," Cohen said in the Aug. 9 statement. Issues that blocked a settlement last year included health benefits, working conditions and pay, the union organizers previously said.
Verizon confirms the company will continue negotiating
"Verizon continues to negotiate under the auspices of the Federal Mediation Conciliation Service. As part of this process, we’ve agreed not to comment on the status of bargaining," Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski said on Wednesday in response to an inquiry of where mediation is heading.
Along with the wireline workers in New Jersey, the Communications Workers of America union represents thousands more in the state, union officials previously had said.
Even while Huber said earlier this year that the union members stayed on the job working under terms from the previous contract, including wider options for health care benefits.
However, the dispute flared up again this spring, when Verizon laid off more than 300 copper line workers, with the explanation that part of the company's business has been shrinking. Verizon union members again rallied by the Verizon Center in Basking Ridge during the month of March.
In April, demonstrators then rallied by the Mendham home of Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam.
Huber said then that between 1 and 1.5 million phone customers in New Jersey still have copper-wire phone lines. He said many of those customers, including senior citizens with medical alert systems, don't want to switch to wireless or fiber optic networks. The unions also have filed a complaint against Verizon with the state's Board of Public Utilities regarding the cuts to the Connected Solutions staff, Huber said at that time.
Huber said that copper line based phones can continue operating through prolonged power outages, such as those lasting about a week in 2011's Hurricane Irene and the Oct. 29 snowstorm. The FiOS fiber optic network does not have that capacity, he said last week.
Gierczynski in April said the FiOS network — with much better bandwidth that serves today's customers — can continue operating for about eight hours with battery back-up. He said that most power outages do not last longer than that, and last year's storms were extremely unusual.
Gierczynski added that the copper lines — unlike the fiber optic network — is more susceptible to weather, and can be knocked out of service by floods, or even wet conditions, even if there is no power outage in an area.
"With [the] workload in our wireline unit continuing to decline, we had to adjust our headcount to meet the downward trend," a statement from Verizon in March read. Gierczynski said last spring the layoffs would not affect service either to FiOS or customers with copper line phones.