NY Democrats siding with unions in Verizon contract battle

Several House Democrats from New York have sent letters to Verizon siding with the company’s unionized workers in the negotiations over a new contract. 

Verizon’s 45,000 union employees went on strike Saturday at midnight after the two sides failed to make progress in negotiations over a new labor deal. Talks in New York are ongoing, but neither side has acknowledged any progress. Verizon says there have been no service disruptions to date from the strike.

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The Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers argue the $1 billion in concessions requested by Verizon would be devastating and say the company hasn’t budged from their initial proposal, submitted June 22. 

Letters obtained by The Hill show several House Democrats wrote to Verizon expressing sympathy for the union’s position on issues such as outsourcing.

“It has come to our attention that many of the contract changes that Verizon has proposed may potentially undermine the financial security of CWA and IBEW employees,” Reps. Tim Bishop and Steve Israel wrote on Aug. 3, before the strike began.

“We are specifically troubled by the proposal to eliminate limits on low-wage contracting and overseas outsourcing. Now more than ever, we need businesses that are willing to invest in keeping skilled workers on our shores and willing to negotiate with those workers in good faith for the benefit of the employees, the company and the U.S. economy,” Bishop and Israel wrote.

Verizon said it is simply asking union employees to pay a portion of their healthcare costs that is similar to what is paid by non-union employees. The firm also said its wireline business, where most of the organized workers are employed, is declining by 8 percent every year. The unions counter that the wireline business is also responsible for laying fiber-optic networks that provide broadband, video and support for the Verizon Wireless network.

“But the growth in FiOS is not yet offsetting the decline in the traditional telephony business,” Verizon said in a statement. “Moreover, our cable competitors do not have the types of labor contract constraints that are currently reducing our flexibility and nimbleness in the marketplace and our ability to serve consumers."

The New York lawmakers expressed concern about downsizing and further cuts, noting the need for skilled technicians to maintain the fiber network.

“From what I have been told, the company’s proposals could reduce the standard of living of thousands of middle-class employees who live in New York State and potentially lead to the elimination of thousands of those jobs,” wrote Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) on July 29.

“While I am well aware of the changes that have taken place in the telecommunications industry, the need to preserve a robust landline network maintained and service by skilled technicians remains the same,” Towns wrote.

Other New York Democrats backing the workers’ position include Reps. Louise Slaughter and Maurice Hinchey, whose spokesman called for Verizon “to act responsibly and take care of their employees.”

CWA President Larry Cohen wrote to every member of Congress on Tuesday, claiming Verizon is looking for $1 billion in concessions from its organized employees and refusing to budge from its demands.

“When Verizon comes to the bargaining table prepared to negotiate, our members will return to work,” Cohen said.

Verizon pointed to the $4 billion it pays annually in healthcare costs, and said the workers must face reality.

"The world is changing. Verizon and its union-represented employees need to work together to adjust rules and policies that threaten to limit the company’s ability to compete in the broadband marketplace,” the firm said. 

"This is hard, but it is doable. And it is the only way to ensure that our employees, customers, and our shareholders all win in this competitive market."