Unions Continue Pushback Against Split Telecom Workforce

Akito Yoshikane

CWA Local 1023 and IBEW Local 827 members picketed outside of Verizon's Newark, N.J., office on June 22, 2011, as negotiations began.

Industry’s growing wireless sector is mostly nonunion — and companies want to keep it that way

The telecommunications company Verizon is seeking concessions from its unionized members in order to shave labor costs and shift more resources to its wireless service.

The Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) represent more than 45,000 employees in the northeastern United States. The unions are currently in negotiations over a new Verizon contract in lieu of a three-year deal that will expire on August 6, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The negotiations come as telecommunications companies are focusing on expanding wireless technology, an area that has relatively fewer unionized workers than the landline sector. In turn, unions are now looking to expand their presence in the wireless field while fending off concessions in traditional communication services.

Thirty percent of Verizon’s 200,000 employees are unionized, most of whom work in wireline jobs. The company has proposed a plan that would freeze pensions, increase employee healthcare contributions, amend job security and pay provisions for its unionized workers. Verizon says increased competition and declining revenue from the wireline services is the reason for the cuts: wireless revenue from last year increased by 5.1 percent, while its wireline revenue decreased 2.9 percent to $41.2 billion. Verizon Communications Inc. profited $2.5 billion last year.

Unions view the proposal as aggressive. This is not a company coming to its union employees seeking ways to work together to face the challenges of the future. Their proposals seek to destroy our future,” wrote the CWA on its website. Bob Master, political director for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) District 1, called the contract an attack on the middle class,” according to New Jersey newspaper The Record.

Workers are planning a July 30 rally at the Verizon’s headquarters in New York City. A walkout also seems possible if an agreement isn’t reached. A July 19 bargaining update posted on the website of IBEW Local 2222 says negotiations with Verizon are ongoing, but also wrote locals should continue conducting their strike votes.”

Verizon is not the only communications company dealing with labor. With a shrinking workforce in traditional telecom, unions are hoping to organize in the wireless sector.

On Tuesday, a group of technicians in Connecticut became the first unionized T-Mobile employees in the United States after voting to join the CWA-TU. A spokesperson for the union confirmed the workers are employed in the wireless division.

The vote comes after the U.S. management had tried to stifle unionization, the union said, even though the company’s German-based parent, Deutsche Telekom, allows its workers employed in the home country to freely organize.

AT&T acquired T-Mobile recently. The move was supported bysome unions, but drew dismay from consumer groups. And although AT&T and Deutsche Telekom have a strong union presence, it’s not clear if there will be any layoffs due to the merger that is not yet finalized.

As companies compete to update their mobile technology, organized labor, as they have done with T-Mobile, are looking to unionize the growing wireless sector. But U.S-based telecommunication companies seem ambivalent.

A Verizon spokesperson quoted by the Wall Street Journal did not seem receptive. Sprint has been historically nonunion, but the market has changed in the traditional sector. Jobs have declined, costs have been reduced and productivity has increased. As a result, unions will be looking to minimize the wireless-wireline division through more organizing.

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Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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