By Grace Bernal
Negotiations ongoing for nearly three months between Frontier Communications and the Communications Workers of America District 9 continue with little prospect of being concluded anytime soon, employees with Frontier have told the Sentinel.
CWA District 9 represents over 2,000 non-management employees with Frontier Communications employed in Southern California, including San Bernardino County.
In 2010, Verizon’s landline operations in Arizona, Nevada, and along the California border were sold to Frontier Communications, which resulted in the creation of the company Frontier Communications of the Southwest. In San Bernardino County at that time, the City of Needles and its outlying community was the sole area serviced by Frontier.
In late 2014, Frontier Communications began to explore the acquisition of Verizon’s landline assets in California, including its internet and cable service customer base. In December 2015, Frontier obtained clearance from the California Public Utilities Commission to acquire Verizon’s landline operations in Southern California, and that takeover was consummated in April 2016.
Verizon had reached an accord with its non-management employees in 2013 after collective bargaining sessions, and that agreement was in place at the time of the Verizon/Frontier transition.
Frontier made, according to CWA District 9 members, a number of commitments at the time of the acquisition, which included agreeing that all employees hired going forward would be inducted into Communication Workers of America, and that specified repairs would be made to the former Verizon buildings and plants that had been neglected for some time, as the condition of the company facilities in at least some cases presented safety hazards to the company’s workforce.
When that contract with the union expired in 2017, Frontier and Communications Workers of America District 9 extended the existing terms of the contract for non-management employees. Between 2017 and 2018, no serious negotiations between Frontier and CWA 9 took place, and in 2018, another extension of the 2013 contract was made.
In 2019, Frontier offered, and the union accepted, in the face of Frontier’s claims of corporate financial hardship, a two percent wage increase.
In April 2020, listing a total debt of $21.9 billion against $7.155 billion in annual revenue, Frontier Communications filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from its creditors.
In 2020, Frontier negotiators cited serious financial issues in successfully convincing CWA 9 to extend the existing contract. Shortly thereafter, CWA District 9 learned that Frontier had paid out $63 million in raises, bonuses and incentive pay to the management and senior administrative echelon of the company.
Frontier, which has been in existence since 1935, has operations in Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Iowa and Michigan.
Frontier’s top executives have indicated they believe the company’s future hinges upon its thorough transition to fiber optics, which is a capital-intensive undertaking the company maintains will ultimately redound to its benefit but which will greatly reduce its profitability over the next six to nine years.
This year, CWA District 9 renewed negotiations with Frontier with an intensified vigor. It was met with the company’s proposed one percent raise, which then increased to 1.25 percent. Simultaneously, the company is seeking to decrease the employer match made to employees’ 401K retirement accounts from a maximum of 6 percent of the participating employees’ annual income to 2 percent.
In the meantime, Communication Workers of America finds itself in an existential struggle insofar as remaining as the employee representative at Frontier. CWA District 9 is in active bargaining mode with Frontier in California, based in Norwalk, while other locals have either concluded negotiations, have pending negotiations or are in the midst of extensions of previous contracts. In defiance of the agreement that CWA claims was made at the time of the Frontier takeover of Verizon, the company continues to hire new workers who are allowed to opt out of being union members. Thus, the unionized employees at Frontier in Southern California are dwindling. While the union yet has leverage, CWA representatives are concerned that if the company continues to, in the words of CWA officials, “stonewall,” within the next decade the union at Frontier will be broken.
The circumstance at present is pushing CWA District 9 ever closer toward the brink of a strike, which would hamper the continued smooth delivery of service – landline, cable and internet – to over 300,000 customers in Southern California and an estimated 70,000 customers in San Bernardino County.
A Sentinel phone call placed to Nick Jeffery, the chief executive officer with Frontier Communications at the Frontier corporate office headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut did not elicit a response by press time.
The Sentinel spoke with Don Ruiz, the chief bargaining representative of CWA 9 in Southern California, to see if he could give a window on how dire the circumstance is and whether it will entail an interruption of communication services in the region.
“We are still in contract negotiations,” Ruiz said. “What I can say is we have multiple differences. I can’t get into specifics, since I am the chief bargaining person. There’s a lot of ancillary articles that have minimal meaning we have been able to put behind us, but on the main points of real substance we are miles apart, right now.”
Asked about the prospect that the union and the company will remain at loggerheads for another three months, or that the differences will trigger a strike, Ruiz said, “I certainly hope we get done before the end of the year.”
Ruiz said the gist of the dispute relates less to money and more to corporate loyalty down the chain of employment.
“The company’s position is it wants to get rid of job security and it wants the ability to outsource,” Ruiz said. “Those are the things we are fighting, to keep jobs in California and the United States. We don’t want them to outsource to places like Mexico City and other areas. We’re fighting for the employees, but also on behalf of Frontier’s customers. We don’t want the company contracting out our work to be done by individuals who are essentially unknown. Our employees go through extensive background checks. As it stands, when you have a Frontier employee coming out to your home, you know that person has been through a vetting regimen and a security process. We are bargaining right now for our employees, but also to keep the company’s customers safe. Our position is let us do our work.”
The Sentinel asked Ruiz how close the company and union are to an impasse and what the prospects for a strike action are.
“There is a process for both,” Ruiz said. “The company can’t just declare an impasse. It is the same thing for a strike. There are various steps you have go through before we get to that. We are not at our bottom line. You have to play the game of incremental proposals and counter-proposals with them so we are not bargaining against ourselves. We are doing that, and will continue to do that, but as I said, we are miles apart on the matters that are most important.”
If push comes to shove and no accommodation is reached between the company and the union, Ruiz said the CWA District 9 is prepared to go to the next level.
“The membership has already taken a vote, and they voted overwhelmingly in favor of going on strike,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz said the employees have shown far more loyalty to Frontier than Frontier has displayed good faith toward them.
“The employees not only went through a bankruptcy with this company, they have lasted through the COVID situation,” Ruiz said. “This was a bankruptcy that was not the workers’ fault but the consequence of the failure of the company’s past leadership. There were three hedge funds that lent the company money to purchase the assets from Verizon. Now that the company is out of bankruptcy, we feel it is important that the employees who made that possible are recognized and get the job security and other things they deserve. The employees have stood by the company through and through with the difficulties it had, and there has been very little reward. All we are asking for is a show of appreciation.”
By Grace Bernal