Union leader William Huber on the front lines of contract talks with Verizon

IBEW official Bill Huber, a union contract negotiator, is a former Verizon technician who says the company can outdo its cable competitors. "I've dealt with hundreds of customers," he said.
IBEW official Bill Huber, a union contract negotiator, is a former Verizon technician who says the company can outdo its cable competitors. "I've dealt with hundreds of customers," he said. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 17, 2011

Not too long ago, union leader William Huber was spending his days in a Verizon company truck, a technician on the road fixing phone and fiber-optic problems.

Back then it was a matter of repairs, or installation, or even, sometimes, persuading a customer to stay with Verizon instead of switching to cable, the archenemy.

These days, Huber has an even bigger job. Instead of climbing into a company truck, he pushes open the door of the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown Hotel in Center City, heading to another day of intense contract bargaining with Verizon Inc.

At stake?

The jobs and compensation of 45,000 technicians, customer-service agents, and office staff in eastern states from New England to West Virginia. Huber's union, Local 827 of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, represents about 5,000 of them, mostly in New Jersey.

The IBEW is jointly bargaining with the Communication Workers of America, which represents most Verizon East Coast employees. Their contracts expire Aug. 6. The talks, which began June 22, couldn't have come at a trickier time for Verizon.

One in four households has already entirely switched to mobile phones, abandoning their landlines, yet telecom companies such as Verizon have huge investments in their "wired" infrastructure. Competition from cable is intense - each side vying to deliver phone, video, and Internet service to homes and businesses.

The number of Verizon retirees, each hoping for pension increases, is expanding.

But employment on the wired side of the business, which supports the pensions, is down - from 173,000 in 2005 to 92,000 in 2010.

Meanwhile, national employment in Verizon's nonunion wireless company, Verizon Wireless, has expanded by 24,000 to 79,000, growing along with its revenues.

The IBEW and CWA represent "wired" workers - employees who work on the part of the business built on copper and fiber-optic wires.

The issues are familiar - Verizon wants workers to contribute more to health-care coverage and to bend more on rules that might shift jobs away from union ranks. Subcontracting for certain technician work is also an issue.

"The biggest challenge is that we are in an entirely competitive marketplace," said company spokesman Richard Young. "Our wire-line business has declined over the past couple years. We're asking [the unions] to take a serious look at where the business stands and come up with a plan that will enable all of us to be successful."

The split between nonunion and union in the related Verizon companies irks Ed Mooney, the CWA vice president who heads Local 13000 in Philadelphia and who is handling the Verizon bargaining with Huber and others.

"The synergies of putting it [Verizon's wired and wireless businesses] together would make a difference," he said.

"Verizon has strongly opposed the unionization of its wireless workers," said Craig Moffett, an oft-quoted senior telecom analyst with Bernstein Research in New York.

"And the last thing Verizon Wireless wants to do is risk having unionized employees in their stores. As a result, there has been little or no coordination at the grassroots level."

But, Moffett said, that's not the worst of Verizon's problems - its mobile business, while growing, is not growing enough to fund Verizon's cost of capital or to offset the decline on the wired side.

"That's been going on for the better part of a decade," he said. "The overall picture is a company that is basically treading water, and just barely."

Huber isn't buying it. Verizon, he notes, has been profitable - $2.5 billion in 2010, on revenues of $106.6 billion.

"I know where Verizon is going awry," said Huber, who now works out of Local 827's headquarters in East Windsor Township, outside Princeton. That had been his office until 2001, when he lost an election, and with it, his desk job. He returned to the road as a Verizon technician, gaining hands-on experience in the latest technology. He was elected again in 2010.

"I've dealt with hundreds of customers," he said, calling on his way back from an IBEW rally Wednesday outside Verizon headquarters in Basking Ridge, N.J.

Cable repair people, he said, are paid by the job, not by the hour, giving them an incentive to rush.

By contrast, when he serviced Verizon's (wired) customers, he gave them his company cell number and told them to call him directly, so they wouldn't have to go through the switchboard. When he was sent out to shut off Verizon's services, he always managed to save the account, he said.

To him, that kind of service is a matter of hearts and minds - and those can be won at the bargaining table.

"I'm saying, 'Guys, we can do better than cable if we provide the service.' "

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com, or @JaneVonBergen on Twitter.

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