Showdown for the Phone Union

With a Nod From Washington, Verizon Prepares for Battle

Verizon was the product of a merger between the old Bell Atlantic and the Southwest-based GTE. According to the union, GTE officials, who come from non-union parts of the country, are now calling the shots on labor strategy, a trend that became clear in last winter's dispute over layoffs.

"They didn't understand why they couldn't just lay people off," said Luzzi of Local 1101. "We had to explain to them that we had job-security agreements."

"I think what [the union] is detecting is that our business is different now than it was three years ago," said Verizon's Bonomo. "Cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging—none of that was as prevalent as it is now. It is a different industry and we have to manage it differently."

In addition to a costly two-week walkout three years ago, the company, then known as NYNEX, endured a violent, four-month strike in 1989 in which, for the first time, it imported scabs to take over union jobs. There was a brief period of goodwill after 9-11, when the company credited its unionized workforce with doing yeoman work to rewire Lower Manhattan after the devastation of the World Trade Center communications hub. But those feelings have evaporated.

"They want a strike, there's no doubt in my mind," said Luzzi. "It is an opportunity for them to move thousands of jobs outside the state. They throw a switch and calls are shifted to Texas and other right-to-work states. It took us 40 years to build up our contract to provide a fair wage for our members and some protection against layoffs. They want that back."

What gives Verizon the gumption to go on the attack now, Luzzi believes, is the prevailing attitude from Washington. "It's coming from Bush on down," he said. "He is trying to roll back the fair-labor standards that have been in place for about 70 years, and Verizon is taking advantage."

Verizon adamantly denies seeking a walkout. But while the parties argue at the bargaining table, the more important battle will be waged in the media, the union suspects. The confidential memo clearly advocates that approach. It proposes that the company prepare "a white paper . . . or some form of media advisory" laying out its version of events. Such a paper "could be released by the company or, perhaps better yet, by a third party," wrote the company consultant.

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