Quarantining Verizon's union workers

by Nancy Scola, MyDD

For the moment, let's forget the important recent debate over whether easing the joining of labor unions is a net good or a net bad for both American workers and American business. Let's instead look at how a Fortune 50 like Verizon might attempt to rid itself of an unwelcomed business reality: many of its workers currently belong to a union, either the Communication Workers of America or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Verizon is a sophisticated, modern telecom behemoth. It isn't likely to resort to blunt-instrument union-avoidance techniques like summarily firing workers who are pro-collective representation.

So what's Verizon to do? Verizon Inc. CEO Ivan Seidenberg is attempting to restructure the telecommunications industry, or at least where Verizon fits into that industry. Verizon's approach to the future is to grow the business while lessening the impact of unionization. How? By quarantining already the unionized technicians, sales people, and service reps of core Verizon from the rest of the growing employee population by building cordon sanitaires around their unit. The end result: unionized Verizon lacks the density that ideas need to spread effectively.

As it stands now, unionization at core Verizon is concentrated to workers who handle POTS -- that's Plain Old Telephone Service. The Seidenberg approach is to not let that high rate of unionization in core Verizon infect the rest of the company as it grows or acquires new units. Verizon has long tried to keep the unions out of Verizon Wireless. Now it's attempting to do the same with other units as they are added to the amalgamation. Case in point is Verizon Business, aka VZB. VZB used to be part of MCI until last year or so, and is now operated as a separate, non-unionized business unit under the umbrella of Verizon Inc. Verizon is moving more and more services and clients and accounts to VZB -- so rather than getting rid of existing union jobs exactly, they're just growing the areas where non-union jobs currently thrive.

As part of my work with the AFL-CIO I've been meeting with the CWA, who along with the IBEW are running a joint campaign to organize about 400 VZB techs in the northeast. About 150 are right here in New York City. The VZB techs have signed cards saying that they want to join the union. Those cards were verified by John Kerry, Stephen Lynch, John Tierney, and others (watch the video). Verizon won't recognize them. Senators Clinton, Kerry, Edwards, and Schumer, and Reps. Slaughter, Weiner, and Nadler and others have pushed the company to recognize the employees' choice. Of course, were the Employee Free Choice Act to pass the Senate and become law, that card check would be enough to form a union here.

A big part of this picture is that Verizon is aiming to compete with the cable companies, particularly via FiOS, Verizon's fiber-optic cable service to the home. FiOS means super-speedy broadband Internet. (Like up to 50 Mbps under ideal conditions. At that speed I could fully download the next movie in my Netflix queue, which happens right at the minute to be "Harlan County, USA," in about 5 minutes.)

But FiOS also means that Verizon can compete with the cable cos in delivering custom digital television content. Not to draw too much into this discussion, but the buildout of resource-intense last 100-yards technologies like FiOS is one of the things that telecoms cite when they argue against net neutrality. Neutrality (they argue) threatens their ability to control their own revenue streams, and the buildout of FiOS is 'spensive, something like $18 billion.

So Verizon wants to compete with the cable folks. But whereas the rate of unionization in the phone-line-in-the-ground business is around 90%, it's at just about 4% in the cable industry. By comparison, it's at something like 35% in the wireless industry, where Verizon also competes. But even in wireless there are other models. Cingular (now AT&T Wireless) has adopted a stance of neutrality when its workers want to join a union, and something more than half of its workers are unionized. Verizon's different approach means that Verizon Wireless and Verizon wireline are kept deliberately separate, including distinct websites at verizon.com and verizonwireless.com. Verizon customer service reps for the wireless service can't answer a question about wireline services. Instead, they'll transfer you to a unionized rep. Quarantined, see?

As I learn about labor, it seems to me that the whole field of union-avoidance is self-educating, in a way. Best practices get studied and copied. If Verizon is successful in quarantining its union workers as it diversifies and grows, then I'm thinking we'll see these techniques learned from and replicated by other employers in the same boat.

article originally published at http://www.mydd.com/story/2007/4/6/21130/45920.

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