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Working In These Times

Monday, Nov 7, 2011, 7:26 am

Where Does President Obama Stand on the Verizon Struggle?

BY Mike Elk

Still no statement from White House, despite company contention that federal healthcare reform forces them to push costs onto workers

Last week, President Obama met with union workers to discuss jobs—and how to create them. The group included Verizon worker and CWA Local 1109 President Rolando Scott from Brooklyn, New York.

Obama spoke to workers about his efforts to create jobs, focusing mainly on his American Jobs Act. "I was glad to be a part of history," Scott said. "I don't believe any sitting president has ever had a symposium of that sort, to have regular working people come into the White House and speak directly to the president."

The November 1 meeting marked the first time in the three years of his administration that President Obama has met with a union worker actively involved in a major contract struggle at the White House. (Another Verizon worker from Maryland, Paula Vinciguerra—who was fired during the strike after being arrested on a picket line, and later reinstated—was initially invited by the White House, but had her invitation revoked before the event. )

Last August, Scott was on strike against Verizon in response to the company’s demands for concessions. After two weeks out on strike, workers, members of CWA and the International Brotherwhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union, decided to go back to work. They're still trying to negotiate a fair contract (see Working In These Times Coverage of the strike here.).

Scott had hoped to ask the president a question, but never got the chance. "I had my hand up, and he looked in my direction, but he acknowledged the woman next to me," he said last week.

Although the Verizon strike of 45,000 workers was the largest strike since Obama took office, the president did not use the opportunity of having one of those workers in the room to discuss the labor struggle. Indeed, the White House has still not issued a statement on the Verizon contract struggle, despite the fact that Verizon workers have been working without a contract for over three months now.

President Obama’s healthcare reform legislation is playing a key role in Verizon’s push for workers to pay more for healthcare. Currently, Verizon union workers say they pay 7 percent of their healthcare in the form of co-pays and deductibles (they do not pay premiums). Under Verizon’s plan, workers would pay premiums, contributing at least $1,200 each year. The company has cited the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare") as the reason for asking union employees to contribute to their healthcare plan.

In literature distributed to employees and members of the press, Verizon said:

Under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, an excise tax will be levied on healthcare plans with very generous plan design components (so-called "Cadillac plans").  This excise tax is projected to cost the company as much as $200 million in 2018 when the tax is imposed; however, Verizon is required to account for this cost now.  Accordingly, we will need to modify plan designs to avoid the impact of this tax.

Verizon workers are struggling to secure a new contract that doesn't increase their share of healthcare costs, but President Obama has shied away from clearly stating that his healthcare reform bill was not supposed to push more costs onto workers. While Verizon workers march regularly with Occupy movement protesters to company headquarters just blocks away from Wall Street, the president remains silent on a struggle in which his policies are (allegedly) playing a central role in making life more expensive for workers. Where does he stand on Verizon workers' struggle—and the company's claims?

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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