Strikers' tough road

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The sight of picketers marching outside of Verizon's downtown local service facility in Pittsfield brought back memories of another era, back when Pittsfield was a union city in a union country. Unions are scarce in Pittsfield today and unions are under assault in much of the nation, but the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communication Workers of America have decided to test their clout against powerful Verizon.

About 45,000 Verizon employees nationwide went on strike over the weekend after failing to agree on a new contract. This is the biggest strike in Massachusetts in a decade, with 6,000 workers walking the picket lines, including about 100 Verizon employees in Pittsfield, North Adams, Great Barrington and Lee represented by IBEW Local 2324 in Springfield. Most are telephone and repair technicians, customer service representatives and operators and all are in Verizon's landline division.

The unions argue that Verizon should not be asking workers for salary and benefit givebacks after acknowledging substantial revenue increases for the second quarter. Verizon replies that its profits are due to the success of its wireless division, and the landline division where the strikers are employed lost 8.2 percent of its customers in the second quarter.

It is difficult to feel sympathy for Verizon. When the state Legislature removed a dated exemption enabling the corporation to avoid paying taxes on utility poles located on public property, the corporation responded to lawmakers' effort to help financially strapped communities raise money by saddling their financially strapped customers with the cost in their monthly bills. Verizon, however, isn't acting unreasonably in asking employees to pick up a percentage of their escalating health care costs, and employees may have to give up a paid holiday or two.

Workers all over the state have stagnant wages, pay more for their health insurance and have lost paid holidays. They are unlikely to feel much sympathy for the strikers, which says far more about the economic state of America than it does the legitimacy of the workers' complaints. We suspect Verizon would love to squash the unions and believes public sentiment is on its side. The unions must make concessions to preserve some of their gains and above all, avoid getting squashed.

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