Verizon Strike Leaves Calls Waiting

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It's never easy to have a phone line installed in New York City, but on Monday it was well nigh impossible. Thanks to the striking Verizon workforce, thousands of requests usually filled by the Bell Atlantic-GTE offshoot went unanswered, even as company officials continued their talks with about 85,000 deeply disgruntled employees. The workers, who tend to the telephone needs of roughly 25 million Verizon customers, primarily along the eastern seaboard, are up in arms over the company's refusal to allow wireless employees to unionize. There are other labor issues at stake as well — forced overtime, job stress, outsourcing work to non-union contractors — but the spotlight remains fixed on workforce unionization.

Union membership, long a given for most of the country's traditional telephone workforce, remains an unreachable ideal for many in the wireless world. Telecommunications giants, basking in their newfound power over the wireless marketplace, jealously guard any competitive advantage and discourage union talk among their new employees, occasionally to the point of intimidation (at least one Verizon worker has reported threats from management after she began looking into union membership).

The problem for Verizon management, of course, is that this isn't the pre-Norma Rae era, when the media were less clued in to labor issues and management could double-talk their way through negotiations without sustaining any serious damage. And of course, today's tight labor market gives workers' demands a great deal more economic weight. The Verizon workers who walked out Monday know they've got considerable clout — after all, if management can't find a way to get them back to work soon, Verizon corporate types could have the whole of New York City to contend with. And we're not very nice when we're unhappy.