WASHINGTON — Job security, working conditions and transfers — standard fare in labor talks — are all on the table.
But the closely watched contract negotiation between Verizon Communications and its two unions is fast becoming a barometer for how the labor movement will galvanize workers in emerging sectors of the economy.
This is "the strike of the 21st century," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
Contract discussions touch on issues raised by industries in transition to new types of technology: consolidation — Verizon emerged from several recent mergers — and the more limited influence of unions in jobs created by the new economy.
The Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have used the negotiations to push for better access to organize employees in Verizon's fast-growing wireless division, which has virtually no union membership.
Organizers fear that without better representation in that unit, the company's union membership soon will be diluted.
The battle being waged by Verizon's unions reflects a broader effort by labor for a foothold in expanding areas of the economy, particularly as manufacturing sectors, labor's traditional base, have shrunk over the past decades.
"It's the growth sectors of the U.S. economy, the industries of the future, that have become very important for the labor movement to revitalize itself," said Daniel Cornfield, a labor sociologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
In some hot high-tech areas such as Silicon Valley, labor leaders have tried to stimulate workers to organize.
A CWA-financed organization, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, represents about 250 employees of such companies as Microsoft and Amazon.com. Although it doesn't collectively bargain, WashTech has pushed to get rid of a state exemption on mandated overtime for certain computer workers.
"We haven't figured out yet how to build a new type of union that works for a new type of economy, but we are moving in that direction," said local president Mike Blain.
Nationwide, most new economy industries remain largely nonunion.
Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, which represents the industry, says union membership is not attractive to high-tech workers, who receive good wages and sometimes extraordinary benefits. They also don't have the same worries about job security, since they're in high demand in a tight market, he said.
"As long as the workers are in a very positive relationship, where they are basically calling the shots, I just don't think there is too much that a union can offer them," Miller said. "You have to plant seeds where the ground is fertile."
Labor leaders rebut that serious stumbling blocks exist to organizing even in new economy sectors where employees are interested.
Chris Woods, assistant director in the AFL-CIO's organizing department, said the industries have evolved during a time in which employers are more savvy about how to keep out organized labor.
Employers "are using very sophisticated, but still very effective, anti-union propaganda," she said.
By and large the wireless industry, which has grown substantially in recent years, is not unionized. In contrast, unions cemented their membership in traditional telecommunications services in earlier parts of the century. In the landline division of Verizon, part of the original Bell telephone system, more than 80 percent of workers are unionized.
Today "union organizing occurs on a different terrain than it did some 50 years ago," said Vanderbilt's Cornfield. Companies "are off the steep part of the learning curve in resisting unionization."
For that reason, unions are pushing for a system by which wireless workers could authorize their desire to organize by checking off cards, rather than holding elections as the company favors.
Verizon, for its part, rejects the contention that the main body of its workers lack access to high-tech jobs. The company argues that a substantial portion of its work force expansion has been in high-speed Internet services, delivered over traditional phone lines and covered by unions.
"The data business is the source of our growth," said Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe.
Some say changing technology that threatens to replace workers makes job security all the more critical in such sectors. The AFL-CIO's Woods points out that just a few years ago people who called directory assistance immediately reached a person. Now an automated computer probably will do the first stages of the work, she said.