As talks to settle the strike by 45,000 unionized Verizon workers — including 6,000 in Massachusetts — continue, there's a heated fight in a local courtroom over the tactics union employees are allegedly using to intimidate replacement workers. On Wednesday a panel of judges hears closing statements in that case.
The Debate Over Picketer Tactics
When a man crossed the union picket line at Verizon headquarters in downtown Boston Tuesday, he was greeted loudly. He was called a scab and one woman on the line shouted, "Don’t touch my stuff!" The union says it wants to make it uncomfortable for the replacement workers and managers.
"We’re telling people to yell what they feel but not to scream," said Matt Lyons, a union steward for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or IBEW. Lyons says striking workers have gone a week without a paycheck and are emotional.
"[We tell them] not to threaten by any stretch, not to swear, we’re not telling people they can’t yell," Lyons said. "I mean, we’re American citizens, just because we’re walking a picket line doesn’t mean we lose our First Amendment rights, either, so..."
But Verizon has taken the union to court seeking an injunction so that employees can go to work without the taunts of picketers. A three-judge panel in Suffolk Superior Court has been hearing testimony for the past three days over whether or not union workers are creating an unsafe environment. Verizon says the thousands of managers doing the striking workers’ jobs are being cursed at, harassed, having things thrown at them and intimidated.
"We are definitely trying to slow [replacement workers] down in their efforts to keep business going."Matt Lyons, IBEW union steward
"They are chasing us in their cars," said Verizon spokesman Phil Santoro. "They are surrounding work locations where we are at a customer’s house or up a pole and trying to do some work and they are trying to prevent us from doing that work."
Lyons doesn’t dispute that.
"We are definitely trying to slow them down in their efforts to keep business going," he said. But Lyons says they are obeying the law and there have been no arrests in Massachusetts related to the strike.
Verizon says it's trained managers to do striking workers' jobs safely. But a Verizon manager who spoke to WBUR on condition of anonymity because he fears union attacks if he’s identified, says he’s had little training for the dangerous work he’s being asked to do, such as climbing poles. And he’s being asked to work 12-hour days, seven days a week. At work, he’s blocked by picketers and screamed at, which he says is causing him emotional distress. He’s called the police for help on several occasions, but he feels the police are on the union’s side.
And then there’s the matter of the cut wires. Verizon's Santoro accuses the union of sabotage.
"It isn’t a coincidence, is it, that before the strike we had only four instances of cut cables in the past six months and all of the sudden, three days after the strike, we have eight incidents?" Santoro said.
But Lyons counters that "sabotage does nothing to help our cause. We don’t tell people to sabotage things." He says the cut lines could be due to metal thieves who target cell towers to steal and sell the high-priced copper, a trend police around the country are seeing.
What The Strike Is Actually About
All this back and forth over strike tactics is a sideline to what the strike is actually about. Verizon says it’s about health care benefits. The union says it’s about job security.
"We are fighting for our jobs and the future of jobs in this industry for us. They are looking for less job security and the right to move work out of the country," said Stephen Lyons, Matt’s brother and also a union steward of the IBEW, one of the two unions on strike.
But "you can’t send a pole-climber overseas to do the work, it just doesn’t make sense, you need them here," Santoro responded. "It’s rhetoric."
Santoro says even though the company made $2.5 billion in profit last year, they’ve lost 64 million telephone landlines over the past 10 years, so the company wants to change the union contract and have workers contribute to their monthly health care premiums, which they currently don’t. Verizon also wants them to give up their right to unlimited sick time, among other things.
"I don’t think that Verizon is asking our union employees to do anything our management employees aren’t already doing," Santoro said.
Back on the picket line, union workers say they are prepared to stay out as long as necessary and they will obey the law and any judge’s orders.
If the judges grant Verizon the injunction order, striking workers would be limited in number and not be allowed to come within 100 feet of Verizon trucks.
This program aired on August 17, 2011.