Verizon stops health care payments, struggles to maintain service as support for strikers grows

Verizon earlier this week notified its 45,000 striking workers represented by CWA and IBEW that the company would suspend health care premium payments, leaving them and their families without health care coverage after August 31. CWA responded swiftly by telling members that the union has taken steps to protect the health and well-being of strikers and their families.

As the strike enters its second week, IBEW said that Verizon’s use of unskilled replacement workers to do the job of trained union workers poses a significant public safety risk, Verizon has found it difficult to maintain service, and support for the strikers continues to grow.

CWA called Verizon’s plan to withhold health care premium payments an attempt to weaken the resolve of strikers and informed members that “CWA has made a commitment to assist striking workers in paying for their health care needs out of the Robert Lilja Members Relief Fund.” CWA also said that members should contact their local union’s Community Services Committee to help decide how to best cover their medical needs during the strike.

While Verizon seeks to weaken the resolve of its striking workers, Ed Starr, business agent for IBEW Local 2321 in Middleboro, Massachusetts, reports that Verizon’s unskilled replacement workers are committing safety violations that would cause union workers to “get written up in heartbeat” and will cause “someone to get hurt unless Verizon settles this.”

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Sun reports that the strike has caused repair delays. Verizon accused picketing strikers of causing the delays, but injunctions by judges have limited picketing at Verizon work locations to a few union members.

Candice Johnson, a CWA spokesperson, said that the delays were more likely caused by the replacement workers. “With other companies, there have been instances where replacement workers (and) contract workers create more problems,” Johnson said.

Customers in Virginia who depend on their land line service also have reported service delays. In Concord, Virginia, Sharon Martin told WSET-TV that she had been without phone service for five days, which was stressful because she has a medical condition that sometimes requires trips to the emergency room.

Commenting on Martin’s situation, CWA Local 2204 Vice-President James Woodson said that Martin’s experience shows that “Verizon doesn’t care. It’s plain and simple.” Woodson added that while Verizon may not care about customers, CWA members do.

Because CWA members care about their customers, the union has intensified its efforts to get Verizon to bargain seriously so that a fair agreement can be reached. Last Friday, the union filed unfair labor practice charges against Verizon with the National Labor Relations Board. The union asked the NLRB to compel the company to follow US labor law and bargain in good faith with its unions.

Johnson said that since day one of contract negotiations Verizon has refused to budge from its demand that workers accept $1 billion in concessions that would significantly reduce their health care, pension, and other union benefits. “This is unacceptable from a company that is among the ten wealthiest in America, that compensates the top five executives at a level of more than a quarter of a billion dollars over four years, that doesn’t pay any federal income tax, and still gets a $1.3 billion tax rebate,” Johnson said.

CWA is also seeking support from the wider community as it tries to pressure Verizon into bargaining in good faith. In less than a week more than 100,000 people have signed a petition urging Verizon CEO Lowell McAdams to get serious about bargaining and “stop trying to push Verizon workers out of the middle class.”

“We will never have an economic recovery if profitable companies like Verizon can demand huge concessions from workers,” Johnson said. “You don’t build a middle class by cutting workers’ wages, benefits and standard of living. That’s just one reason why Verizon is becoming synonymous with VeryGreedy.”

CWA is also providing the public with a number of ways that it can support the strike such as adopting a Verizon Wireless store where flyers telling the workers side of the story can be passed out, holding solidarity rallies, and joining local picket lines of Verizon workers.

At the national convention of the United Steel Workers, CWA District 9 Vice-President Jim Weitkamp told the steel workers that “Verizon has aligned itself with the ultra right-wing in this country which is determined to destroy collective bargaining in the United States. They have their hand in the pocket of every working-class family in this country. We will not stand by and let them mug us in broad daylight.”

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