The Strike of the 21st Century

The impact of 86,000 striking Communications Workers of America is becoming very real, as union members and Verizon Communications management lock horns in negotiations.

As of this writing, there's no sign that things will abate or improve as talks head further south.

The union's basic beef is their fear that the new giant, Verizon, will centralize operations and move jobs out of the Northeast to areas where labor is cheaper and unions don't pose as big a threat to operations. Sound familiar?

I couldn't tell you for my life what Verizon's position, is because they just appear to keep digging their heels deeper into the ground.

Verizon is the bizarre and seemingly meaningless new brand name for the mega-telecommunications company that was born out of Bell Atlantic Corp.'s acquisition of GTE Corp. in June.

Verizon is now also the largest local and wireless phone company in the nation. Shortly before the strike began Aug. 6, Verizon launched a massive media campaign crowing about how great this new entity would be in providing advanced phone services to the region.

I would wager, however, that this new entity is going to wind up going down in management books as the mistake of the century. The media is already calling the walkout "The Strike of the 21st Century."

And it may very well be. What's most galling to customers is that the inane Verizon commercials are still airing, while on any given day since the strike began, thousands of customers have been the victims of cut lines, left without something as absolutely necessary as phone service.

If you're lucky these days, you just get a little glitch, like I have right now. I've been kicked offline about five times as I try to send this column to my office from home.

Wouldn't you have stopped those ads and run some new spots, asking for patience while the problems were being ironed out? By not doing so, Verizon has given us a very real insight into what this strike is all about: the corporation's total lack of sensitivity toward its workers and, by extension, its customers. The testosterone is clearly raging here.

But the fact is that the whole network is slowly breaking down. Most of us are lucky to have phone service, but it's getting very dicey.

Sure, we can live without directory assistance. But as my local paper again reported, angry strikers slashed phone cables at seven nearby locations. Those lines were restored and treated as an emergency.

But try to get a date for a repair. Try to get an answer on why your line is suddenly fuzzy. Try to get an answer on why your fax machine is conking out, or why you can't get your caller ID function to work again. Try to order new services.

And, oh yes, try to order a DSL line, which Verizon still stupidly crows about. Forget it.

The impact of this feud became very clear to me when I ran into a buddy at the train station this morning. Robert is a self-employed digital photographer who just gave up his office space in Manhattan because his rent had tripled.

All summer long, he had been optimistic about Aug. 1, the day he would set up shop in his home in White Plains, N.Y. He had planned well and even ordered his DSL line from Bell Atlantic in late spring.

But now, his phone lines are so fuzzy that he can't even get an Internet connection. He has a wife and two small children, so he wasn't going to tie up his phone line on the Net. But he couldn't get Verizon to come out to install new lines for his business. So he was once again heading into Manhattan to a friend's office to catch up on his work. He looked very stressed, and the very word "Verizon" incensed him.

Great branding, or what? Way to go, Verizon.