What’s at Stake in the Verizon Strike

However and whenever the strike involving more than 85,000 employees of Verizon Communications is resolved, it is likely to be the beginning, not the end, of an extremely interesting battle. The key consideration isn’t wages or work hours, although those issues are on the table. The key is figuring out whether organized labor can make a new place for itself in the so-called New Economy.

Verizon Communications is the product of a merger between two phone companies–Bell Atlantic and GTE Corp.–completed earlier this year. Its main business is providing local phone service. The strike involves workers who were part of Bell Atlantic, covering a dozen states and Washington, D.C.; of the roughly 120,000 employees of Verizon’s local phone business, about 80 percent are unionized. But the “traditional” business of plain old phone service by way of plain old phone wires is not exactly a big source of excitement among people who run–or invest in–telecom companies these days: Everyone sees the future in various new technologies.

Wireless technologies, for example. Verizon, of course, has a subsidiary, co-owned with Vodafone AirTouch, called Verizon Wireless. Its ads have been fairly ubiquitous in recent months: Citizens of all creeds, ages, and hairstyles, filmed in grainy slow motion, flash the “V-for-Verizon” sign at each other, signifying a kind of universal brotherhood grounded in the common usage of Verizon Wireless. “People everywhere just want to be free,” warbles a nouveau-folksy singer in the annoyingly catchy song that is the ads’ soundtrack.

Verizon’s sensibility in staffing its wireless subsidiary seems a little less rooted in utopian togetherness, however, and this is probably the most important thing that the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are trying to get at. Of Verizon Wireless’$2 32,000 employees, the number who belong to a union is reportedly less than 50. The unions want clearance to use the easiest and fastest method to unionize Verizon Wireless work sites. Current union members, apparently, believe as deeply as anyone else that the future is in wireless, and that that’s where the jobs are going to go, too. (Reports on the strike have all mentioned in passing that the entire local-call process is so heavily automated at this point that hardly any Verizon customers will actually notice the strike–which must be rather disconcerting for the strikers.) As one union technician put it to the Wall Street Journal: “In 10 years, everything will be wireless. I want to make sure that [Verizon Wireless is] a unionized shop so that I have the opportunity to get those jobs.”

Even if the unions get what they want, it will still be interesting to watch the actual union-building process unfold, largely because it’s hard to believe that Verizon Wireless management will ever stand by as neutrally as the unions want it to. You’ve probably noticed if you’ve followed the progress of any number of New Economy companies or sectors, that the word “union” pretty much never comes up; investors tend to believe that speed is everything when it comes to deploying new technologies and that unions just get in the way. In another area in which Verizon Communications faces keen competition–installing technology to allow high-speed Internet access–it has taken to relying on outside, nonunion contractors. So, the Verizon concessions the unions want hardly guarantee them or their members a permanent stake in a wireless future. But as a first step, it looks pretty crucial.