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Forty-five thousand workers at the telecom company went on strike August 7, and the fight between the union and the company has gotten ugly, with accusations of sabotage and physical violence. Yet Americans seem to be paying little attention to the dispute. We explore whether attitudes toward labor issues are shifting, and whether a lack of sympathy for the workers has to do with a tough economy.
- Steven Greenhouse Correspondent, The New York Times; Author, "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Forty-five thousand Verizon workers walked off the job on August 7 in a dispute over their contract. Strikes are meant to call attention to the union's issues, but it doesn't seem as though this strike is getting much traction with you, the public. In part, Verizon technicians aren't all that visible. You might not even have noticed that they're on strike, that is, until your phone line breaks.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn tough economic times, it can be difficult to muster sympathy for anyone who actually has a job, and unions have been losing members and political clout for years. So has the world changed for the American worker? Joining us to discuss this in the context of the Verizon job action is Steven Greenhouse, labor and workplace correspondent for the New York Times, and author of "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker." He joins us by telephone from New York. Steven Greenhouse, thank you for joining us.
MR. STEVEN GREENHOUSENice to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Has the Verizon strike affected you in any way? Are you sympathetic to the workers in the strike? Why or why not? 800-433-8850. Steve, who are the Verizon workers and why did they go on strike?
GREENHOUSEThey're 45,000 Verizon workers, and the people that went on strike work for the land lines, the wire lines division, not the wire -- Verizon wireless. And they're -- they stretch from Massachusetts down to Virginia, and they're members of two unions, the Communication Workers of America, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. And they went on strike because they believe that Verizon is asking way too much in terms of concessions.
GREENHOUSEVerizon, at a time when it's highly profitable, is asking for a pension freeze, it's asking for the workers to pay considerably more for health coverage, it wants to reduce their paid sick days, it wants to make it easier to fire or lay off people. And, you know, the company says these people are in our old traditional, struggling land lines division which isn't doing nearly as well as wireless, and they say because they're in this struggling division, we really need to cut their costs.
GREENHOUSEAnd the union says, well, the parent company's going like gangbusters, it's usually profitable, and they argue it's wrong, you know, to ask them to take all the concessions.
NNAMDIHealth care premiums seem to be one of the bigger issues. Do workers pay anything at all now?
GREENHOUSENo. The Verizon union members are among just one percent of all workers in the United States who contribute nothing towards their health care premiums. They pay seven prevent, they tell me, towards their overall health costs, but pay nothing in premiums. And the union -- I'm sorry, the company says that's crazy, you know, all these other workers are paying 10, 12, 14 percent more per year towards their health coverage, and it's only right, the company says, for the union members to contribute more.
GREENHOUSEAgain, the union says Verizon you're usually profitable, why are you asking us to take all these concessions? My sense, Kojo, is that if Verizon is only asking for one concession on health care, the union would probably be happy to make that concession. But the company really had a hundred proposals for concessions on the table, and that kind of blew away the union and the union said, you know, we really can't agree, brook the idea, tolerate the idea of negotiating a hundred concession when you the company have made $22 billion in profits over the past four years.
NNAMDIDid you say a hundred?
GREENHOUSEYes. A hundred. Now, last week -- two weeks ago, Kojo, I spoke to people in the two unions and they said it's very unlikely we're going to go on strike. You know, you don't often go on strike when unemployment's very high and when the economy is weak. And then, you know, two Saturdays ago, the day of the strike deadline, I received a phone call from someone from one of the unions who said, you know, it's really likely we're gonna go on strike.
GREENHOUSEAnd I asked why, what happened? And this person said they still have these hundred demands on the table. And usually during negotiations, you know, a lot of the demands start peeling away and start being taken off the table, but, you know, um, even Verizon admits that it's been very aggressive during these negotiations, that it wants to discuss some far-ranging concessions.
GREENHOUSEThe union says the company is seeking $20,000 in concessions per year per worker, and that's certainly upset a lot of the workers, and the company says no, no, we're not asking anything near $20,000. There clearly is, Kojo, an effort by both sides to win public support. Now, this...
NNAMDIVerizon's got full-page ads in the Washington Post reading, they claim we want to strip away 50 years of contract negotiations. They're right. The ads go on to say that in order to stay competitive, Verizon has got to update contracts. Could an ad like that have gotten any traction say, 10 or 15 years ago, you think?
GREENHOUSEI think so. I think, you know, in a certain sense, the public is, you know, certainly unions are less visible, less powerful than they were, and I think the public is generally less aware of what's happening in Unions. You know, polls show that, you know, the public is still, you know, many members of the public still are generally supportive of unions. They say that unions, you know, help, you know, push for, you know, better unemployment benefits for everyone, push for a higher minimum wage for everyone including not union members.
GREENHOUSEOn the other hand, you know, a lot of the public think that unions are a pain in the derriere. They're causing strikes, they're getting in the way, that they have, you know...
NNAMDIIs there any really -- is there any way to read where the public's sympathies lie on this particular strike at all?
GREENHOUSEMy guess is both sides are doing, you know, internal polling...
GREENHOUSE...and they're really not going public. I mean, my sense is, you know, you know, the union is trying very hard to win public support and says, you know, here's a very profitable company. They're demanding all these concessions on outsourcing to make it easier to move jobs abroad. They can use it to fire people, and again, why is this profitable company doing this. Verizon with its full-page ads is also trying very hard to win public support.
GREENHOUSEIt says, you know, these workers get paid better than most other workers. They have better health benefits, and they say that's not right. And, you know, this is, you know, several years back I covered the UPS strike with over 150,000 people on strike, and there seemed to be much more public interest and involvement. I think that's because everyone knew who the UPS delivery person was.
GREENHOUSEThey could relate it to the guy in the brown suit. And here, you know, we don't often see these Verizon workers. You know, they come maybe once every two years when something -- there's a storm and something happens to your line, or in -- or when you want an extra line installed in your house. I mean, there isn't the same attention, affection, familiarity with these workers, and I think that's one thing that's hurting the strikers.
GREENHOUSEThe second thing I think is making the strike difficult is, you know, it really, you know, I think the public will only be hurt when there's a huge backlog, when you have to wait a month or two or three months for your broken phone to be fixed. And I -- the backlogs are not nearly that long right now. Maybe if the strike lasts two months, the backlog will greatly increase.
GREENHOUSEOr if there's a hurricane in August that knocked out hundreds of phone lines or thousands of phone lines and wire, that would also put huge pressure on the company to be more flexible to try to end the strike.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Steven Greenhouse. He's the labor and workplace correspondent for the New York Times, and author of "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker." We're talking about the strike at Verizon being led by the Communications Workers of America, CWA. Here is Dianne in West River, Md. Dianne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANNEYes, thank you, Kojo. I am sympathetic to the strikers, although I have a really good friend who's manning the phones as well, taking up the slack. I've spoken to some of the workers that are striking right down the street at a facility where I live, and they're out every day with their signs, and I talked to them just recently. And I wanted to know what their demands were. I thought maybe -- I've never felt one way another about unions, but I wanted to get their input as well, and not just the media's input.
DIANNEAnd they said that they were striking to have their benefits not taken away and reduced. And in this climate of jobs and middle class being squeezed by corporations, I see a real need for workers to unite and stand up for their rights. My husband's benefits were very vigorous and great benefits when he started, but over the years they're slowly being whittled away.
NNAMDIOkay, Dianne. Thank you very much for your call. By the way, Steve, this has gotten ugly with the company essentially accusing strikers of sabotaging Verizon lines, and strikers claiming they've been hit by managers' cars while picketing. Is any side winning that publicity race?
GREENHOUSEAgain, Kojo, it's very hard to know who's winning that publicity race. Clearly, you know, when some people read about the sabotage apparently by some strikers, a lot of people get outraged, and clearly when some people read about, you know, picketers being hit by managers' cars, or security guards cars, they think that's outrage too. I think the caller made a good point. You know, the union is saying we are fighting to protect the American middle class.
GREENHOUSEThey say, okay, some, you know, some people are jealous of the union for having better benefits -- better health and pensions than they have, and the union says, look, if we could protect our good health benefits and pension benefits, that would make it easier for other people to get good health and pension benefits to protect their health and pension benefits.
GREENHOUSESo the union, you know, describes this as a fight to defend the middle class, and Verizon says this is a elite group of workers who have it better than everyone else, and they say kind of, you know, we need to get some cost concessions. We need to knock them down a few pegs in order to make our land line business more competitive, and to help increase its profits.
NNAMDIHere's Betty in Silver Spring, Md. Betty, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BETTYHi. I recently switched within 30 days to FiOS, and I'm wondering, can I show support for the union by switching back to Comcast within the cancellations period for my FiOS?
NNAMDII don't know. I guess the union would say yes, right, Steven Greenhouse?
GREENHOUSEWell, I think the union, you know, like many unions, you know, like Samuel Gompers used to say, you know, that, you know, the best thing for workers is a healthy company. I think they want FiOS to succeed long term.
NNAMDIOkay. That's the best thing for workers, but for the average consumer, why should the average consumer care whether Verizon becomes more competitive and maintains its profit margin or not?
GREENHOUSEYou know, that's a tough -- I think a consumer wants a company that provides good service at a reasonable cost. And one might say on one hand it might help the consumer if Verizon were to cut costs because that might enable Verizon to cut its, you know, how much it charges for FiOS and how much it charges for the phone line. So maybe it wouldn't cut costs. Maybe it would just pocket the difference.
GREENHOUSEAnd I imagine the union would say it's good for the consumer's when the workers are well paid and happy because they'll provide better service and there will be fewer delays. I think they both argue that what they're -- both sides would argue that what they're seeking is better for the consumer.
NNAMDIIn other words, Betty, we're not sure. But thank you very much for your call. Steven Greenhouse, thank you so much for joining us.
GREENHOUSEMy pleasure to be here, Kojo. Nice to be here.
NNAMDISteven Greenhouse is the labor and workplace correspondent for the New York Times. He's the author of "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker." Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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