Verizon's 'People' Prove Plenty Powerful

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One problem Al Gore could run into this fall as he pits "people" against "the powerful": In the age of tight labor markets and the booming dot-economy, it's getting harder and harder to tell which is which.

Take the Verizon strike, in which management took the risk of a labor walkout and then discovered that in the high-tech, high-growth telecommunications industry, where employees are hard to find, hard to train and harder to keep, the lowly worker has quite a bit of clout. Some of the workers' victories in the deal, reached early Monday, that should effectively end the 15-day strike, according to the Wall Street Journal:

More money: Wage increases of 12 percent and pension increases of 14 percent over the life of the three-year deal, and 100 stock options — the first such issuance in the company's history — for each union employee by the end of 2000.

Continued job security: The Communications Workers of America again secured from Verizon a guarantee of no layoffs for the life of the contract. Verizon, a spiffy new name for the combined Bell Atlantic, NYNEX and GTE, did win the right to move more employees around the company — up to 2.1 percent of workers — than it could before.

Time-outs for harried reps: Verizon was forced to guarantee "close time," during which service reps may shut off their stations to reduce stress.

Performance bonuses: Customer service reps can now be offered incentive awards for individual performance. This was actually a victory for Verizon; unions historically hate that sort of member differentiation.

DSL and seniority: Verizon also agreed to use union workers for DSL installation jobs (it had wanted to farm the high-growth area out to non-union labor to avoid strict union work rules) but won the right to choose its teams rather than automatically award the coveted task to the most senior union members.

As Alan Greenspan is sure to mention in his interest-rate meeting Tuesday, jobs are still very easy to find in this economy, and suitable employees very hard. Employee leverage is up, along with wage and benefit pressures. Labor unions are finding leverage where they had little before; the resource they control is in high demand.

All in all, it's not a bad time to be one of the "people." 'Specially if George W. can deliver a big fat tax break to boot.