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"This is a very profitable company," said Hughes. "Usually we are up against a company that is limping along. But this is part of a trend where even a profitable company will ask for concessions, with the rationale that they want to become more competitive."
The other undercurrent to the labor battle is the shape of the telecom future. Verizon, part owner of the currently non-union Verizon Wireless, is hoping to keep things that way. The last strike ended with an agreement to allow Wireless workers to decide, without outside interference by the company, on whether or not they wanted to join the union. According to the CWA, Verizon broke that agreement. The company denies it. Either way, both sides know that the trend toward cell phone technology will only increase and that the unions have a big stake in extending their foothold in the new technology.
Already, the current dispute has shown the unions able to recruit new allies. Last Thursday the unions joined students from an anti-sweatshop group to hoist their banner outside a Verizon Wireless store on West 57th Street.
The students, members of the United Students Against Sweatshops, which held its convention in New York this past weekend, said there was a clear connection between the phone negotiations and their protests of third-world sweatshop conditions in the manufacture of big-ticket clothing lines.
"We want cell phone service that's not only good service but also good for its employees," said Maddy Elfenbein, 20, a Harvard student. "In this particular labor dispute, the power of students is magnified because so many cell phone users are young. Verizon has been trying to keep its wireless company non-union. We could let them know pretty easily that we disapprove by calling on people to switch to a union company," she said.
One Verizon competitor, Cingular Wireless (the result of a merger between BellSouth Corporation and SBC Communications), has a CWA contract, and Elfenbein suggested that publicity about the contrasting labor situations at Verizon and other mobile-phone companies could become a new pressure point for the company.