August 21, 2000

Telephone Company Strike Ends Today

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As off-campus students bring up car loads of belongings and start redecorating their apartments, they’re finding that getting a telephone line installed has become nearly impossible.

Even though phone company Verizon has reached an agreement with striking union workers, service is still affected for the over 10,000 Ithaca customers — including Cornell’s off-campus community — and over 45 million customers in 12 northeastern states.

Employees of Verizon, which was formed after the merger of Bell Atlantic and GTE Corporations, will return to work today but may face a heavy backlog due to the three weeks of striking.

On June 26, contract negotiations began when more than 50 percent of Verizon workers agreed to recognize the Communications Workers of America (CWA), an international union, as their bargaining unit. The strikers demanded that Verizon hire union members to work in the wireless service division.

“We had an agreement after the ’89 strike that they would not oppose us in organizing the wireless services,” said Tom Joseph, chief steward of the CWA’s local 11-11. “The way the industry is going, wireless is going to be big.”

Workers argued that Verizon had renamed portions of the company to avoid hiring union workers, especially in the wireless services. Other concerns included forced overtime and centralization of services.

In Ithaca, the entire Verizon staff, some 35 to 40 workers, joined 83,000 employees on strike between Maine and West Virginia. Today, they will receive paychecks and review contract changes during a rally.

A vote on the changes will take place later this week.

Joseph said that service was delayed for the one in three customers who need to be visited by a repair representative because of more complicated installations. The bulk of this included setting up lines where there weren’t any before, such as in new apartments and renovated houses.

Students who tried to get in touch with a Verizon representative reached this recording: “Due to a strike, you may experience lengthy delays in having your calls answered. … If your need is urgent, please stay on the line to speak with a representative … otherwise, please call back at another time or when the strike is over, if possible.”

Yet not every “emergency” call was answered and even students who spoke to a representative may not get phone service.

“I can’t get a line; I called and nobody picked up,” said a frustrated Matt Dombrow ’01. “I can’t even talk to a real person.” Dombrow is using a cellular phone until he gets service but grumbled, “It’s expensive.”

“The people here seem to be pretty helpful. They gave me a phone number but they didn’t turn my phone on,” said Jay Suchotliff ’01, who managed to reach a service representative.

On-campus housing and University offices were not affected because Cornell has its own phone technicians.

Students shouldn’t expect phone lines to be installed just yet. “I don’t believe the phone company has any idea [about the extent of the backlog] because they don’t have enough staff taking order complaints,” Joseph said.

Catching up may take anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months; there’s no way of knowing how many orders need to be filled until employees return to work.

“There are many variables,” Joseph said. “Ithaca’s really one of the harder towns because of off-campus housing. For most college towns, most people live on campus.”

Casey Badach ’01 was told by a service representative that phone service wouldn’t be available until December when she called before the strike’s end. “We all had to get cell phones so we can have contact with the outside world,” she said.

Other ways students have tried getting service was by turning to other phone companies. They were turned off, though, by higher prices. “The only local service [alternative] is AT&T and that’s too expensive,” said Martha Shaughnessy ’01.

For students, “There’s not a lot they can do to expedite the process,” said Joseph. “It’s going to be a zoo; it’s a zoo already.”

Archived article by Beth Herskovits