August 2, 2008

Verizon Strike Called Unlikely With Pacts Set to Expire

By Rick Stouffer, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Aug. 2--Union contracts covering about 65,000 workers at Verizon Communications Inc. expire at 11:59 tonight, but the threat of an immediate strike appears small.

The telecommunications company is in negotiations with the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers over new contracts. Members of both unions have authorized a strike.

Verizon employs some 4,000 in Western Pennsylvania, and 9,000 statewide, according to the company.

"We're in negotiations right now, and it's our expectation to negotiate a contract with industry-leading wages and benefit packages for our telecom employees," said Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski.

It's unlikely a strike would occur this weekend, as both sides in the past have continued negotiating past the contract deadline. If a strike does occur, the main effect could be delayed installations and repairs of landlines and Internet connections. The most recent contract negotiations were in 2003, with both sides agreeing to a pact a month after the previous contract expired without a strike.

"Negotiations are continuing, and we're certainly hoping for a settlement," said Marge Krueger, administrative director for Communications Workers of America District 13, located in Green Tree. Krueger said the CWA represents 3,000 Verizon workers in the area, and 50,000 of the 65,000 total unionized employees.

Chief sticking points in negotiations include a company proposal that workers pay a portion of their health insurance premiums, a proposal that workers retiring in 2009 and after pay for their own health care, and the elimination of retiree health care coverage for new hires, according to the Communications Workers.

"Job security also is being discussed," Krueger said.

The union workers are on the traditional telephone side of the business. Verizon Wireless, the company's big growth driver, has few union employees.

A strike by employees, including engineers and customer service workers, could delay Verizon's plans to expand its FiOS high-speed Internet and video service. The company said its home phone and wireless services will not be affected.

FiOS is a key part of Verizon's strategy to bolster its landline business and compete with cable companies' all-in-one packages of phone, video and Internet services.

Banc of America Securities analyst David Barden expects the deadline to pass without a contract and without a strike.

"Labor will continue to go to work without a contract while the union leadership ratchets up its rhetoric regarding the need for a contract and Verizon expresses optimism a fair agreement is possible," Barden wrote in a research note.


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