Verizon Threatens to Suspend Strikers' Health Insurance

Wednesday is day 10 of the Verizon strike. For 240 hours, 45,000 unionized members of the company's traditional telephone division have rotated shifts at picket lines down the East Coast. But Verizon hasn't budged in its demands, and the company is pushing harder. On August 31, the company says it will suspend basic health insurance and medical benefits for all workers still on strike, reported the Wall Street Journal.

With Verizon wire line contracts set to expire in early August, Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers entered into negotiations with Verizon management. The conversation quickly turned sour.

According to a press release from CWA Communications Director Candice Johnson, Verizon was demanding $1 billion in concessions per year, which breaks down to $20,000 per worker.

"It's more rhetoric," Verizon spokesman Phil Santoro told the Boston Globe. "It's another move at posturing."

Verizon cancelled negotiation sessions three times over the weekend, according to CWA, and when contracts expired August 6 at midnight, Verizon workers walked out.

The threat to suspend health insurance and medical benefits was delivered in letters to the 45,000 strikers. It was intended to give them time to seek alternative coverage, according to claims made in the Wall Street Journal.

The 35,000 workers represented by the CWA, who have been protesting without pay, are eligible for $200 a week after 15 days of the strike and $300 after 30, drawn from the union's $400 million fund. The CWA is also organizing ways to assist its members with heath care payments.

Strikers can also opt-in to a COBRA coverage plan, paid for out of their own pockets.

The escalation shows how intractable the standoff has become. Verizon, facing declining landline revenue and fierce competition, stands by the need to reduce the cost of its wire line business. Verizon workers see the concessions as an attempt to rewind decades of bargaining.

"Verizon is following the Wisconsin playbook and it's wrong," Johnson said.

The union and Verizon have even made separate appeals to Congress.

"We ask you to write Verizon President Lowell McAdam and urge him to respect collective bargaining rights and not to destroy middle 0class jobs," the CWA wrote in a letter to congressional offices in the northeast and mid-Atlantic.

"The world is changing," said Verizon in its letter, sent on the same day. "Verizon and its union-represented employees need to work together to adjust rules and policies that threaten to limit the company's ability to compete in the broadband marketplace."

As the strike moved into its second week, both CWA and Verizon filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

The CWA claimed Verizon was "refusing to bargain and negotiate in good faith." Verizon made a similar complaint.

The threat to suspend benefits also touches a particularly sensitive nerve, since health insurance and medical entitlements are the two most contentious items on the negotiating table. Verizon is demanding a cut in paid disability leave and $100 monthly healthcare contributions, as well as a pension freeze, a reduction in holidays and a closer tie between raises and job performance.

Verizon has trained more than 40,000 managers and contractors to perform the jobs of the striking workers, reported Businessweek. The company has proudly declared that its landline operations are performing smoothly, despite the loss of so much staff.

"Our management team is doing an outstanding job of serving customers despite some strikers' attempts to obstruct our efforts," Bob Mudge, Verizon president of consumer and mass markets, said in a press release.

Verizon has accused union members of committing "dozens of acts of sabotage to its network facilities." The company is offering $50,000 in rewards to stop vandalism, and even filed a lawsuit against local unions in Delaware so that a judge would issue injunctions preventing picketers from blocking entrances, shutting down the power and gluing shut fences and truck locks.

CWA responded in a statement: "We fully expect that union members will respect and follow the law. Our unions do not condone violence in any form."

The union has also accused Verizon of harassing workers, by forcing members to drive to different locations to pick up paychecks, denying disability pay to members on sick leave when the strike began if they had not yet taken the the eight days off required for disability benefits and refusing to pay people for scheduled vacation time while the strike is in progress.

The pressure is intensifying. So far 100,000 people have signed a petition in support of the strikers, and CWA members demonstrated outside the house of Verizon Chairman Ivan Seidenberg on Friday.

The stakes are higher, but the outcome is even less clear. Verizon's threat may either shatter the unity of the strikers or strengthen their resolve.

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