Union fights Verizon for Shore phone lines

Posted: August 02, 2013

Two years ago this week, Verizon Communications Inc. and its union workers were in the final, fruitless rounds of negotiations before 45,000 employees went out on strike - the largest strike in recent labor history.

Beyond wages and benefits, the underlying conflict didn't end on Aug. 21, 2011, when, after two weeks on the picket line, Verizon technicians, operators, customer-service agents, and sales consultants returned to work.

Unresolved was the future of the telecommunications industry, with a dwindling number of union wire-line workers battling against an unrelenting trend toward mostly wireless communications - served by a mostly nonunion workforce.

This week, the battleground is the Federal Communications Commission, where, on Monday, Local 827 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers filed a letter in opposition to Verizon's June 7 request to end copper-wire service to some parts of New Jersey and New York affected by Sandy.

In its place, Verizon proposes a wireless device called Voice Link for phone-only customers and a switch to Verizon Wireless technology for customers who want data access.

"Verizon must not be permitted to avoid its obligations to support and maintain a wirelike network under the guise of responding to a national catastrophe, Superstorm Sandy," the union wrote.

Verizon Wireless, a separate but related company, is primarily nonunion.

The Voice Link boxes would be installed in customers' homes by Local 827 members, but they require considerably less maintenance than phone lines, which are kept under repair by Verizon's union workforce.

Verizon's proposal would affect Mantoloking, Brick, and Bay Head, Verizon said, where much of the copper line infrastructure was destroyed by Sandy. Its proposal also would affect parts of Fire Island in New York.

A Verizon spokesman said he did not know when the FCC would decide on the company's application.

In its letter, the union echoed the complaint made by the AARP, which filed its opposition to New Jersey's Board of Public Utilities. The company needs approval from both the FCC and the BPU.

"The New Jersey coast has been battered enough. The last thing we need is second-class phone service at the Shore," AARP lobbyist Douglas Johnston said in a statement. He added that not bringing land lines back to Mantoloking could "further the gap between the telecommunications haves and have-nots."

The union says the Voice Link system is inferior because it does not provide some capabilities, such as fax, alarm, or medical-alert services available through a copper line.

Verizon said it is working to find alternatives for these services. But, the company said in its petition, rebuilding the copper network would further inconvenience residents and "given the prevalence of storms . . . it is likely that any restoration would be temporary."

The union isn't buying the Sandy angle, said Robert W. Speer, president and business manager of IBEW Local 827. The union, based in East Windsor, represents 4,700 Verizon workers in New Jersey.

"I believe Verizon wants to abandon copper," Speer said.

Verizon chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam "is interested in wireless," Speer said. "What's one of the most costly things? People. Wireless doesn't need people."

Thomas Maguire, Verizon's senior vice president for national operations, said Sandy had an impact on the issue.

"One thing that Sandy did, beside destroy the infrastructure in many locations, was that it accelerated the changes in the telecom marketplace," he said.

People who had been content with the phone system the way it was suddenly had that system interrupted by Sandy. The storm pushed them to make a change they might have otherwise avoided, he said.

With so many people trading in their landline phones for mobile devices, does it make economic sense to replace the copper system in the communities that were so badly battered by the storm, he asked.

"This is the way the market is going," Maguire said.

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

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