Ruling aids both Verizon, strikers

By Taryn Luna
Globe Correspondent / August 20, 2011

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A panel of three Suffolk Superior Court judges yesterday granted Verizon New England Inc. an injunction that prevents striking union workers from blocking access to company property, but the court did not approve several other restrictions Verizon sought to place on pickets.

The order, which affects four locals of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, came after testimony from both sides in a three-day hearing. It said strikers may not prevent people from getting in and out of Verizon facilities by means of “physical obstruction, intimidation, coercion, violence, or threat of violence.’’

But judges rejected the company’s requests to limit picketing at facility entrances to two union members, and to keep strikers more than 100 feet away from Verizon trucks, and prohibit them from following the vehicles.

IBEW members have been picketing at Verizon offices, stores, and other buildings since they went on strike Aug. 7 after contract talks with management broke down. Key issues include employee contributions to health insurance and proposed changes to the retirement plan.

“We are pleased with the decision,’’ said Alfred Gordon, a partner at Pyle Rome and Ehrenberg, a Boston law firm representing one of the union locals. “The company in its complaint had asked for many onerous restrictions to be placed on picketing, none of which the court agreed to.’’

Verizon called the injunction “very strong’’ because its requires that nonunion workers be allowed to immediately pass through picket lines.

“While our union-represented employees are on strike, we still have a right to be safe and a responsibility to maintain our networks and services that millions of consumers and businesses depend on,’’ said Phil Santoro, a Verizon spokesman.

The company has alleged that some of the 45,000 members of the IBEW and Communications Workers of America on strike along the East Coast have harassed, threatened, and endangered the safety of nonunion managers who are required by the company to take up the jobs left vacant.

About 6,000 Massachusetts employees are on strike, with many regularly picketing outside Verizon facilities and stores. Some have been accused of following managers everywhere from job sites to their homes. Verizon contends that in some cases, strikers have blocked access to facilities, threatened physical harm, and sexually harassed managers.

Representatives of the unions, which include local 2222 of Boston, 2321 of the northeast portion of the state, 2322 in the southeast, and 2325 in Central Massachusetts, have said they do not condone such behavior.

The injunction hearing began last Friday when Verizon asked for a court order to protect its working employees and company property.

Massachusetts has an anti-injunction statute that is intended to prevent orders curbing the right to picket, except in extreme circumstances. To be granted an injunction, Verizon needed - among other things - to provide evidence that police officers were unable or unwilling to protect the company’s property and that the union condoned the threatening behavior described by Verizon’s witnesses.

The court found evidence that union members engaged in violence or threats of violence, gender- and ethnic-based harassment, and dangerous driving and impeded work at job sites and blocked entrances to Verizon facilities. But the court also said that union officials talked to stewards and captains about such behavior and have halted the actions, except members’ attempts to stop people from entering and exiting properties.

Verizon’s regional divisions have been granted injunctions against the IBEW and CWA in courts in New York, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

In most cases, the injunctions prohibit more than six union members from picketing at entrances or exits of Verizon property, and limit the number of pickets and their proximity to job sites. The orders say that union members cannot threaten, obstruct, intimidate, or harass in an effort to interfere with working employees’ job duties.

Gordon said injunctions in other states were more stringent than yesterday’s Massachusetts ruling. “What we have is an injunction that is relatively simple to follow and obey because it is literally what we already do,’’ he said.

Taryn Luna can be reached at