Globe Editorial

Verizon strike grows bitter, but not beyond repair

August 16, 2011

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TOUGH TACTICS abound on both sides of the strike by 45,000 unionized Verizon workers. The company has gone to court in several states seeking injunctions against striking workers, and has pressed its case before the public. And some strikers have resorted to sabotaging company property and threatening managers. Yet many of the issues on the table offer plenty of room for compromise.

Health care costs are at the heart of this strike. Verizon is asking its unionized workers to pay a fair share of their health care premiums. Many of the unionized employees in the company’s declining landline business contribute nothing - that’s zero percent - of their fast-rising premium costs.

A deal like that can’t last forever. Last year, the average American worker with a family plan absorbed a 14 percent premium increase, pushing his or her annual bill to about $4,000, according to the nonprofit Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust. The health care demands of the Verizon workers simply don’t compute with the public, not when so many of their counterparts in the private sector are picking up at least 30 percent of the annual cost of a family health care bill.

Verizon is also trying to make reasonable changes in antiquated work rules, some of them relics from the day when the company was a regulated monopoly. Flexibility is key to operating in the competitive telecommunication market. The union won’t do itself any good in the long run by clinging to minimum staffing requirements on service calls, insisting on extra pay rules that apply even when a worker is out sick, or resisting reasonable relocation policies.

In other areas, however, the company’s demands for flexibility sound suspiciously like an attempt to juice profits at the expense of workers. Calling for the elimination of job security provisions, for example, seems onerous on top of the other concessions being requested. In fast-changing environments, companies can justifiably seek to reduce labor costs, but long-term success depends on the support and productivity of a fairly compensated, motivated workforce. And Verizon remains a highly successful operation, reporting $3 billion in profits over the first half of this year.

An extended strike won’t help either the workers or the managers. The ultimate arbiters are Verizon’s customers, who have other options. Though both sides continue to meet across the bargaining table, neither is reporting any progress. An impasse would give openings to competitor cable, Internet, and phone services. With so much room for maneuvering and so much at stake, there’s no excuse for a breakdown in communication between Verizon’s union workforce and management.