Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Verizon Strikers Say They Are Defending The Middle Class

By Lisa E. Crowley
BROCKTON—Verizon worker Vic Smith of Bridgewater said union members will do what it takes to save jobs from being sent overseas and to protect the middle class, as he and dozens of other striking workers picketed at two locations in Brockton.
“We’re all standing here together,” Smith said Tuesday afternoon as he (pictured at top) and more than 30 other Verizon employees made it difficult for the telephone company’s trucks to enter the plant at the end of West Chestnut and Pearl streets, on the West Side of Brockton.
As Smith spoke, fellow strikers struck up a chant, shouting “we’re united," and passersby heading to area shops and restaurants, honked their horns and waved.
Two Brockton police officers, hired by Verizon, slowly moved a group of 5 or 6 strikers from the path of the Verizon truck as it pulled in at the intersection of Pearl and West Chestnut, a 50-yard strip of road leading to the plant.
When picketers moved, the truck rolled a few yards toward an open fence where a core group of about 30 strikers carried signs and blocked the entrance to the Verizon plant.
Sting's "Message in a bottle" blared from a car stereo parked on the side of the road where employees set up beach chairs and tables.
The two police officers slowly walked to the strikers, who broke their circle and formed on each side of the truck.
The driver--either an active or retired member of Verizon management who has been trained to step in during emergencies and strikes—pulled past the group and into the facility as strikers shouted at him.
Strikers said they live in Brockton, Bridgewater, Raynham, Taunton, Easton, Whitman, Abington and other towns across the South Shore and have joined more than 45,000 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Communication Workers of America from Massachusetts to Virginia in a battle with Verizon management over what strikers call the battle for the middle class.
In Massachusetts, 6,500 IBEW and CWA workers have joined the strike.
Union workers went on strike at Midnight, Sunday, Aug. 7, after negotiations with company heads in Rye, New York ended Saturday with no agreement on a new contract.
Local union leaders said when the unions' three-year contract expired Saturday night with no agreement, the unions had no choice, but walk off the job.
“Going on strike is an absolute last resort,” said Eric Hetrick, business manager of IBEW Local 2322, which represents members in Southeast, Mass., Cape Cod and the Islands.
“The last thing a union business manager wants to ask its members is to strike,” Hetrick said.
Hetrick said IBEW workers who are participating in the strike will begin paying their own bills after this week when they get their last check from Verizon because the IBEW does not have a defense fund to help pay bills while workers are on strike.
CWA members, Hetrick said, have had additional dues set aside for a defense fund and believes members have about two months before the fund runs out.
The last Verizon strike was in 1989. It lasted 17 weeks.
Picketers downplayed reports of sabotage and cut lines in Tewksbury and Plymouth, noting crying sabotage and cut lines is the first play in management’s playbook during a strike.
Verizon officials could not immediately be reached for comment, but a prepared statement on the company’s website notes the contract includes employees who work in Verizon’s landline operations, which has lost nearly 60 percent of its customers over the last 10 years, while Verizon’s cellphone customers have increased by 94 million during the same period.
Picketers said Verizon, which netted a profit of $16 billion last year, is being greedy and only wants to give bonuses to its head managers and destroy the middle class.
Hetrick said the $16 billion profit was after “everything right down to paying for paper clips” and workers believe the company has plenty to offer employees without damaging the company’s bottomline.
“We’re not talking about getting rich here,” Hetrick said. “Workers want to be able to buy a house, raise their kids and send them to college, and pay their bills. None of us are going to get rich on what we’re asking,” he said.
Hetrick said one of the main points on the table is Verizon’s demand it be able to move thousands of customer service employees who handle landline billing and service calls from customers in the Northeast to the Philippines and India.
“It’s about losing jobs here in the Northeast. Here in the United States,” Hetrick said. “It’s a bitter pill to swallow," he said.
Another sticking point, Hetrick said, is Verizon’s demand employees pay for health care costs.
He said Verizon has asked employees to pay on average $4,000 to $6,000 per year for health care insurance.
Hetrick said Verizon employees currently do not pay anything for health care premiums.
He said he understands millions of Americans often pay an 80-20 percent share, with employees paying 20 percent, of health care costs, but added IBEW and CWA representatives have offered health care proposals where employees would still not pay any premiums and it would save Verizon money.
He said Verizon officials would not discuss the unions’ counterproposals.
Negotiators met in New York Monday and Tuesday, and were expected to resume talks this morning.
Picketers in Brockton said, although it may be difficult if the strike is prolonged, like 1989 when it lasted more than four months, they said they are fighting for the middle class.
"We're united, we're united, we're united," they shouted.

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