Talks resume, but no progress as Verizon strike enters day two

Talks resumed between Verizon and striking employees on Monday, but the two sides indicated they are still far from reaching an agreement after two days of work stoppage.

A spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) said Verizon has refused to budge from its demand for $1 billion in concessions per year from the 45,000 organized workers in the firm's wireline division. Verizon says it is simply asking unionized employees to bear a portion of their healthcare costs in the same manner as other non-union employees.

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"Verizon wants to emulate Wisconsin-style bargaining and get rid of the middle-class standard of living for workers," said CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson, claiming Verizon's negotiating position has not changed substantially since talks began on June 22. The strike began Saturday at midnight following the expiration of the previous contract.

"They need to get serious. When Verizon demonstrates it will seriously bargain, we're ready to go back to work," she added.

Verizon spokesman Ed McFadden said the crux of the issue is the rising cost of healthcare combined with a decade-long decline in the wireline market. The telecom giant has framed the striking employees as primarily linked to its wireline business, while Johnson argued that Verizon's separate wireless network wouldn't be able to function without the fiber-optic backbone that connects cell towers and carries voice traffic.

"Verizon spends $4 billion annually on healthcare, and those costs are going up," McFadden said. He dismissed the union's frequent mention of the firm's profits, which he said totaled $2.5 billion last year.

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"It's true that Verizon Wireless has performed very well, but we're talking about the wireline business here, which is declining," McFadden added. "We feel that we need to look at all the issues that will keep us competitive moving forward in a new environment" that includes competing with online video as well cable and broadband providers.

Johnson bristled at what she termed Verizon's disparagement of the technical skills of its organized workforce, noting that the employees lay fiber-optic networks and install FiOS broadband for large firms and commercial enterprises.

"Verizon would like to imply they are installing black rotary phones," Johnson said. "These are very technical and skilled workers; they maintain the network that is the basis for Verizon Wireless."

Both sides were cagey with regard to the current state of negotiations, which were ongoing in New York on Monday afternoon. Both sides repeatedly said they were willing to negotiate and implied their counterparts weren't.

Johnson said employees were hopeful the strike wouldn't be prolonged but said the onus is on Verizon to come to the table with a more acceptable proposition. She said the union formulated its own proposal to overhaul the company's healthcare plan but Verizon was unwilling to discuss their counteroffer.

According to Johnson, unionized employees at Verizon currently pay for roughly 7 percent of their healthcare costs out of pocket. She said the concessions requested by Verizon include significant cuts in employees' compensation packages along with the elimination of paid holidays, including Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"I take very seriously that 45,000 employees of Verizon are without a paycheck in a very difficult economy, when they should be spending time with their families enjoying the summer and getting ready for a new school year," said Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam in a letter to management on Sunday.

"Our team is dedicated to working as hard as they can to resolve our differences with the unions so all of our employees can get back to work serving customers," he said.