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Union officials, SWAT police face off in Philippines amid ongoing Verizon labor dispute

"We sent four [union] members to the Philippines to learn the truth,” the Communication Workers of America said of claims that Verizon is outsourcing far more jobs than it has claimed.

By Doug G. Ware
Union officials, SWAT police face off in Philippines amid ongoing Verizon labor dispute
A major labor dispute between communications giant Verizon and union workers, which started April 13, continues without any real progress toward a new labor deal, news reports say. Nearly 40,000 unionized workers began the strike after working for eight months without a contract. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

ALABANG, Philippines, May 13 (UPI) -- An ongoing labor dispute between Verizon and almost 40,000 workers nearly led to violence in the Philippines this week, where armed police and advocates for striking workers suddenly found themselves in a confrontation.

The escalation happened Thursday in the Pacific island nation, where Verizon operates call centers. The dispute, which has been going on for a month, involves two labor unions concerned about job outsourcing and low wages.

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Thursday, members of the Communications Workers of America were confronted by police after visiting Verizon offices in the Philippines, where the union reps said they hoped to gauge the extent of the company's call center job outsourcing.

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"Executives repeatedly have claimed that Verizon offshores few jobs, and none that affect our members. Recently, our union was contacted by call center workers in the Philippines who revealed that Verizon was lying to our members and the public about the extent of the off-shoring of good American jobs, so we sent four CWA members to the Philippines to learn the truth," CWA President Chris Shelton said in a statement.

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According to the union members, and video taken of the confrontation, they were chased off by private security forces and even armed police -- who appeared to be tactical officers carrying automatic weapons -- who pursued their van through the streets of Alabang and ultimately stopped them for questioning, guns drawn.

"When our members uncovered how Verizon is padding its incredible profit margins by replacing good paying American jobs with poverty-wage jobs abroad, Verizon sent armed guards and a SWAT team after them," Shelton said.

"It was like being in a movie -- they were dressed all in black with masks and automatic rifles," union representative Tim Dubnau, one of the four union reps in the van, told Fortune Friday. "At first they were demanding that we get out. One officer even hit the door with his gun. But we didn't open up, we knew our rights."

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Two videos were uploaded to YouTube Friday that captured part of the confrontation with police.

After the escalation eased, the advocates were taken to the police station and later released, with no charges. While no one was hurt in the confrontation, it represents the divisiveness of the ongoing battle between workers and the New York-based communications company.

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"Verizon is offshoring customer service calls to numerous call centers in the Philippines, where workers are paid just $1.78 an hour and forced to work overtime without compensation," the CWA stated.

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In the United States, Verizon workers have been off the job from Massachusetts to Virginia since last month. Little progress has been made and no new talks are scheduled. The other union involved in the dispute is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

"Given Verizon's enormous profitability there is no justification for the company's continuing demands to destroy good middle-class jobs and offshore work," the CWA said in April.

Of the 39,000 striking workers, about 13,000 are call center workers, union representatives said. At the center of the dispute are job security and wage concerns. They finally walked off the job April 13 after working without a new labor contract since August -- eight months.

Verizon, which has since hired replacement workers, has said it wants to improve efficiency by closing and combining call centers and routing calls to outside contractors, including some in the Philippines and Mexico.

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"Our first priority is to maintain the customer base we have -- answer the phones, surveil the network, work repairs -- and we're fully staffed to do that," Verizon network president Robert Mudge said.

Last month, the company reported a sharp increase in the number of sabotage incidents involving U.S. infrastructure equipment -- which has interrupted some wireline service. Verizon reported nearly 60 incidents in seven states in recent months. Some observers believe Verizon has implied that those acts of sabotage are related to the ongoing strike.

"These are criminal activities, affecting people's safety and putting lives at risk. We are investigating all reports and pursuing all avenues to assist law enforcement in finding and convicting the perpetrators of these acts," Verizon's chief security officer, Michael Mason, said.

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