Union workers strike in Suffolk

Published 10:46 pm Thursday, August 18, 2011

From left, Paul Miska, Tom Plemmons, Mike Carter and Joseph Graham, holding his 3-year-old daughter Ariana, picket outside of the Verizon Wireless store in Harbour View Thursday. They are Verizon cable-splicing technicians who are represented by the Communications Workers of America union. About 45,000 Verizon employees are on strike after the company and union could not agree upon new labor contract conditions after the current contract expired Aug. 7.

Dressed in red shirts and donning “on strike” signs around their necks, a group of Verizon workers marched outside of the Verizon Wireless store in Harbour View Thursday.

“It’s a different kind of strike,” said Tom Plemmons, a steward with the Communications Workers of America union. “It’s not as if we’re trying to get more money. We’re trying to keep what we have.”

Plemmons, who is a cable-splicing technician based out of Portsmouth, said the group of about five workers decided to picket outside of the Harbour View store to bring attention to their cause.

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These men, along with other members of the CWA union, have picketed outside of the stores in Suffolk, including the Harbour View store and the downtown location, multiple times since the CWA went on strike Aug. 7 after negotiations over their labor contract fell apart.

The contract covered about 45,000 employees represented by CWA and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers who complete landline work for Verizon, all of whom went on strike when the negotiations with the company hit a standstill.

The workers and company are at odds about several contract issues, including health care, pension and holidays.

Plemmons said he is most worried he won’t receive a pension after working for the company for about 14 years.

“I’ve got quite a bit of time there, but not enough to get pension,” he said. “We have great jobs, and we love our jobs, but if we lost retirement, that would really hurt.”

Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell said the company’s plan isn’t to cut pension for all workers. Instead, he said, Verizon wants to freeze the pensions of current employees and increase the amount the company puts into their 401(K) plans instead.

“We’re proposing some changes to the pension, but current employees wouldn’t lose anything,” Mitchell said.

However, under this plan, new Verizon workers would not receive pension at all, he said.

Mitchell said the workers on average make about $79,500 a year in weekly wages and some overtime pay, and an extra $41,500 in benefits.

Mitchell said the disagreement stems from the company asking the workers to make sacrifices because its landline business is losing customers.

“We’ve lost approximately 50 percent of landline business over the past 10 years as people are able to choose to go with other providers for their phone service, such as cable providers, wireless providers, and Internet-based companies like Vonage and Skype,” Mitchell said.

But Plemmons said he thinks the company is using the bad economy as an excuse to take away benefits.

“This contract came up at a time when Verizon wanted to take advantage of a bad economy,” he said. “I know they aren’t hurting.”

Mike Carter, another cable-splicing technician out Thursday, said he thinks the company is being greedy in its negotiations.

“They made $22 billion last year, but they want to take away from us,” he said. “This is no more than a beautiful example of corporate greed.”

Until things get settled, Verizon has trained management and non-union workers to perform the jobs left vacant by striking workers.

As a result, Mitchell said, the strike is causing delays in some of Verizon’s services, such as FIOS installation and landline repairs, but is not affecting the wireless service at all.

Regardless of their disagreement on the issues, both Mitchell and Plemmons said they want the strike to be over as soon as possible.

“We’re hoping this thing will be over soon,” Plemmons said. “We all hope to go back to work soon.”