By SARAH HALL and MICHAEL HALLISEY
Both sides of a near two-month long labor dispute are expected to return to the negotiating table this week, despite one side already presenting its final proposal.
Nationwide, Verizon employees donning red union t-shirts are picketing outside their respective call centers. The three-year contract between the communications company and its employees expired last summer. One union representative said the employees just want to retain what was agreed upon under the previous contract.
“We worked without a contract for over nine months,” said CWA 1118 Treasurer Mike Tanzarino, as he walked the line outside of the Verizon call center in Colonie. “And they, at the end, wouldn’t budge.”
That is when Tanzarino and thousands of Verizon employees chose to strike.
Inside a union family
Stephanie and Ed Piston have been through four strikes with Verizon. But they’ve never seen one stretch out this long.
“Really, since it went to Verizon from Bell Atlantic, I think there’s only one time we haven’t been on strike,” said Ed Piston, an outside field technician who started with the company 26 years ago. “This is the longest one we’ve had since we’ve been with the company.”
“And we’ve been with the company since it was New York Telephone — NYNEX, Bell Atlantic and now Verizon,” said Stephanie, a construction coordinator who has been with Verizon for 24 years.
This strike has another dubious distinction for the Pistons, who live in North Syracuse.
“This is the first time we’ve actually lost all of our benefits,” Ed said. “The way they say it, they always pay them the first of the month, and it goes through the whole month. We’ve been on strike before for three days or two weeks. They’ve never taken them away. This time, right on May 1, gone — life insurance, medical benefits, the whole nine yards.”
The Pistons are among 110,000 Verizon employees and family members to lose benefits effective April 30, when the company cancelled them for all strikers. The longer the strike goes on, the longer strikers and their families bear the burden of going without pay, without health benefits and without the certainty and comfort of a secure job.
“I’m scared,” Stephanie admitted. “I’m scared of what’s going to happen the longer this goes on.”
Outsourcing, benefits sticking points for union
The strike began at 6 a.m. April 13, as members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) working for Verizon’s wireline operations failed to come to an agreement on a new contract with the communications giant after 10 months of negotiations. Nearly 40,000 installers, customer service employees, repairmen and other service workers in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. have been picketing Verizon offices and wireless stores ever since.
Verizon execs presented what they called their “last, best and final offer” to the unions April 28. Though the contract promises to continue the company’s 401(K) match program and offers a 7.5 percent raise over the next three years, it also calls for employees to pay more for their health insurance, reduces retiree benefits and caps pension benefits at 30 years. In addition, the contract does not include any guarantees that Verizon wouldn’t send more jobs overseas.
“It’s not about raises. It’s not about the money,” said Chris Ryan, president of CWA Local 1123, which represents communications workers in the Syracuse area. “It’s about us trying to preserve middle class jobs and keep those jobs in the United States of America.”
According to the union, Verizon has already outsourced more than 5,000 jobs — mostly call center work, like that done at the facility on Thompson Road in DeWitt — to Mexico, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic and other locations. The new contract proposal would make it easier for the company to continue to do so — though Ryan said it’s a cost-cutting measure Verizon doesn’t need to make.
“When you have a company that makes $1.5 billion a month in pure profit, you shouldn’t have to talk to someone in India,” he said.
What’s even more upsetting, employees say, is that the company itself doesn’t seem to know where the jobs are.
“When [CEO Lowell] McAdam was at Thompson Road, I was there. He has no idea that FiOS calls already go overseas,” said Brian Borchik, a storekeeper with five years on the job. “He said, ‘No, they don’t.’ There were people there that handle this, and they said, ‘Yeah, they do, they absolutely do.’ And his comment was something to the effect of, ‘Well, with 40,000 employees, I might miss something here and there.’ That’s not a minor something. That’s why we’re on strike.”
McAdam’s ignorance on the matter was particularly upsetting to Ryan.
“When your CEO makes $18 million, and he doesn’t know that work is going overseas, that’s pathetic,” said Ryan, of Geddes. “How ignorant. You’re showing America that he’s not only the greediest CEO in America, but he’s also the most ignorant and the biggest imbecile.”
According to Tanzarino, Verizon circumvented union leaders and express mailed offers to striking employees to share its best and final offer. “They spent half a million dollars to FedEx to 39,000 of our members. We collected it and gave it back. … They don’t want to bargain with our bargaining team. They would rather go straight to our members. And, they all gave it right back.”
Striking and struggling
According to Verizon’s own website, the company took in $131.6 billion in revenue in 2015 and paid out $8.5 billion in dividends. Those figures have union rank-and-file members like the Pistons and Borchik shaking their heads.
“They’re telling us they need to basically gut the contract that we have because the company can’t fiscally afford to keep the contract that we have,” Ed Piston said. “Yet they’re making $1.5 billion a month in profit. How much more money do you need to make before you decide that’s enough?”
Meanwhile, strikers are struggling to make ends meet.
“We have one child with major health issues,” Stephanie Piston said. “We had to apply for COBRA because of our son’s medical costs, which is $1,900 a month for our family. My other child has medical issues that require blood tests and medications. Medications alone for the family is, like, $1,500 alone without insurance per month.”
“Which is hard to pay for when you don’t have any income,” Ed interjected.
“So you do the best you can,” Stephanie said. “You hold on until you go back to work, but you’ve got to tell the kids, ‘No, we can’t go to the movies today.’ The things you used to do, you can’t do until this is settled. Luckily for us, the kids are old enough that they get it most of the time.”
Borchik, who has a 13-month-old son, is in a similar position.
“My wife doesn’t work. She’s going to sign [our son] up on the New York Health Exchange. Luckily, we’re all in good health, and all of his doctor’s appointments [for first year well-child checkups] happened just before the strike,” said the Baldwinsville resident. “But, no, she doesn’t work, so income goes from a lot to nothing.”
Some union members have had to take advantage of food pantries or SNAP benefits, while others have gone on the New York state insurance exchange.
“It does take a toll,” Ryan said. “We’re going into our fourth week. Our mortgages are coming due. It’s very hard on these families.”
So why not just end the strike?
“Every other major corporation is looking at what we’re doing now,” Stephanie Piston said. “We’re not just fighting for us. We’re fighting for everybody who has a job.”
Her husband agreed.
“We’re taking the income hit now to ensure that we don’t have this problem tomorrow,” Ed Piston said. “If we sign the contract that they offered us, within three years, none of us are working. All right, you’ve got a job that’s going to pay you for the next year or two, maybe three, but that’s it. That’s the way they’ve got it structured.”
All of the strikers emphasized that they weren’t asking for anything they weren’t due.
“If they said, ‘Take the contract that you have today and just extend it for three years,’ for whatever time, everybody would have been signing on the dotted line and we’d be out of there,” Ed Piston said. “The whole thing is about how they want to take away things… We’re not looking for more. We just don’t want to lose what we’ve got.”