For the past week, roughly 2,000 telecom workers at Frontier Communications in Southern California have been out on a unfair labor practice strike over a grievance stemming from the company’s continued reliance on subcontracting at the expense of union employees’ job security. The Frontier workers, affiliated with the Communication Workers of America District 9, walked out last Friday across eight locals representing technicians, call center employees, dispatchers, clerks, mechanics, and construction workers.
On Wednesday night, Aug. 23, Thomas Ham, a fiber-optic technician with Local 9588, announced on Twitter that the grievance with Frontier had been settled and workers would be reporting to work Thursday morning:
In a Thursday statement, CWA Local 9510 Executive Vice President Kenny Williams said,
“This is a huge victory for CWA members at Frontier who stayed one day longer, one day stronger on the picket line and refused to settle for the company’s excuses and empty promises. It’s proof that we can successfully fight back when we come together, mobilize and build solidarity.”
As part of the settlement, Frontier agreed to adhere to a limit on subcontracting as set in the collective bargaining agreement. The company will also post job requisitions for a hundred cable-splicer openings and work with union members to backfill positions with qualified applicants, creating union jobs rather than depending on contractors.
Now, members must come to the table with Frontier to bargain a contract. CWA members have been working without a contract for the past year after the March 2020 extension of their previous contract due to bankruptcy proceedings. That contract expired in Sept. 2021. The following month, in Oct. 2021, workers went on an unfair labor practice strike over wages, the use of subcontractors, cuts to retiree healthcare, and attempts by the company to eliminate the “no-layoffs” clause. In Feb. 2022, they voted down a tentative agreement by two-thirds.
The latest unfair labor practice strike has nothing to do with contract negotiations and everything to do with how Frontier is running the business. Union members say they’ve had enough.
“Our members are fed up,” said Frank Arce, CWA District 9 Vice President, in a statement announcing the strike. “We will no longer allow Frontier to line the pockets of its executives and jeopardize our members’ livelihood by hiring cheaper and inexperienced contractors who provide inferior service.”
In the past year alone, Frontier has: faced criticism from customers over extended outages in West Virginia; settled a lawsuit in Wisconsin over misrepresenting its ability to deliver—and then failing to deliver—high-speed internet, paying $90,000 to the state and committing to a $15 million investment to improve its Wisconsin infrastructure; and, in California, the company settled a $69 million lawsuit with the Federal Trade Commission because it lied to customers and charged them for high-speed internet that it failed to deliver.
An Oct. 2020 report by the CWA shed light on how reliant carriers such as AT&T had become on contractors to build out their networks and connect customers to broadband, all to the detriment of union workers. AT&T has used more than 700 contracting companies in the past four years, according to the report. In a survey of 1,500 AT&T technicians, the union found that 96 percent of them said they encounter quality problems resulting in higher costs, 81 percent cited service issues for customers, and 57 percent said the problems often created risks for workers and the public.
Telecom workers attribute many of the quality issues at Frontier to the company’s use of contractors. “They go out and mess a lot of stuff up. Then we’re expected to go out and fix it after hours. Customers aren’t happy when we have to come back,” said Brian O’Callahan, a construction worker in Local 9588.
The construction workers in the CWA have seen a steep decline in their numbers due to the increase in subcontracting. “My yard alone, back when we started our fiber build—we had probably 60 cable splicers and at least 30 linemen,” said O’Callahan. “Now we’re down to maybe 20 cable splicers and, right now, we have about six linemen. In California alone, we used to be almost 6,000 members strong. We’re down to under 2,000.”
The recent walkout came after several fruitless meetings to resolve the subcontracting issue. According to the CWA,the company recognizes that it was violating the 5 percent subcontracting limit stipulated in the collective bargaining agreement. The company, however, disputed the union’s claim that it hasn’t shared contracting levels. In a statement issued on Aug. 19, Frontier said the subcontracting issue “has been wholly mischaracterized. Like most companies, we’re using contractors to fill a gap as we actively recruit new talent in a tight labor market.” Those “gaps” are apparently numerous and cover other factors ranging from weather-related repairs to public utility commission and overtime requirements.
The conflict stems from an expired Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between CWA District 9 and Verizon initially signed in March 2005 and later extended in March 2010 for another three years, telecom workers say. As Verizon was building out its fiber-optic internet and replacing aging copper phone lines, the union’s District 9 agreed to allow for the 100% use of contractors on FiOS work, but there were a few restrictions.
“The understanding at the bargaining table between CWA and Verizon was supposed to be for a limited time, so they could start this ginormous building of the FiOS network,” explained Omar Martin del Campo, a fiber network field technician. “The CWA bargaining team didn’t have an intention of renewing [the MOA], even though it kept getting renewed, so the company could maximize contracting.”
According to CWA members, even Verizon wasn’t as egregious of a violator of contracting terms as Frontier has been in the past years. The five-year MOA, titled “FiOS Jobs of the Future” and signed in March 2005, was sparse on details about limits on the subcontracting, giving the company an opportunity to build out the FiOS network with 100% contract labor (a copy of the contract was made available to me by CWA rank-and-filers).
Martin del Campo further explained that the union couldn’t build the FiOS network with its existing members at the time, who mostly worked on aging copper networks. “[The company] understood they got to build this giant network, and they were not gonna be able to snap their fingers and hire a bunch of people to do the work, so they knew they were going to contract,” he said, describing the thinking of Verizon and CWA when the MOA was signed. “Once it was built, you were not gonna let those folks go. You don’t want to be hiring and laying off. And that’s why everybody that negotiated ‘FiOS Jobs of the Future’ understood it as a temporary thing to allow the building of this network.”
However, the contract kept getting extended. “Prior to that agreement, it was 5 percent contracting,” which was standard on CWA contracts, Martin del Campo told me. “Fast forward: The fiber network now is everything to them. Frontier sells all its high-speed internet over the fiber network. Nobody buys copper services unless they don’t have it built in those areas. So the fiber network is the showhorse, the breadwinner. How in the world would you agree to unlimited contracting?”
But while Martin del Campo is perplexed by the union’s thinking, he also concedes Verizon and the CWA had agreed that the terms of the MOA were temporary and that union members didn’t possess the knowhow to build out an entirely new network from the ground up at scale. Nor did they foresee the impact it would have on members in the long run. “For members that were in the union at the time, I would imagine it was hard to comprehend when it’s something brand new, and you’re negotiating terms ahead of time,” he said.
When the MOA was renewed as part of a three-year contract in 2010, the union put in language capping the company’s reliance on contracting.
“Article 7, the Use of Contracting of Work, shall not apply to any work-related activities associated with Fios Work,” reads the 2010 version of the “FiOS Jobs of the Future” MOA. “FiOS work-related activities may include using contractors to backfill regular wireline employees who are in FiOS training or performing FiOS work.”
The MOA further adds that use of contract labor “shall not result in the lay off or part-timing of any regular employees” and “shall be capped to not exceed thirty-five percent (35%) per calendar year.” But the cap only applied to customer-facing roles of field technicians like Martin del Campo.
Now, “if Frontier could replace us all with contractors, they’d be happy to,” said Martin del Campo. “If you read the current version of that MOA, I believe their stance is that limitation of 35 percent only goes towards the FFT checks, which would be the people that come to your house and your business and set up your phone lines, your internet, your TV. But [for] the construction group, [the] company’s contention is that, ‘Oh no, that’s unlimited. And that’s where we have a fundamental disagreement.’ We need to get back under 5 percent. ‘FiOS Jobs of the Future’ is expired.”
In an Aug. 3 bargaining update, CWA District 9 said, “We informed the Company that the Contracting MOA (FiOS Jobs of the Future) has expired and is no longer in existence. The Union’s position is that the Company is to abide by Article 7-Contracting of Work.”
Frontier Communications, formerly Citizens Communications, provides broadband to 2.8 million customers in 25 states, with plans to ramp up its fiber expansion plan to reach 10 million locations by 2025. In 2009, the company bought Verizon landlines for $8.6 billion across 14 states, including California—in the process, the telecom giant absorbed 11,000 CWA members with their contracts intact. The move was “a contrarian strategy [premised on the notion] that Frontier could generate steady revenue from residential internet and video services even as wireless use exploded,” argued Drew FitzGerald in the Wall Street Journal.
Since then, the company has shifted its strategy to the non-union wireless and fiber side of the business. In 2015, Frontier Communications bought Verizon’s wireline assets in California, Texas, and Florida for $10.5 billion. “This last acquisition was largely about acquiring fiber,” Frontier Finance Chief Perley McBride told the Wall Street Journal in 2017.
“We are deploying fiber and connecting people to the digital society at a record pace,” said Nick Jeffery, President and Chief Executive Officer of Frontier, in the company’s Aug. 2022 second-quarter report. “We have the second-largest fiber build in the country and this expansion is unlocking new opportunities to meet increased consumer demand for blazing-fast fiber broadband while driving efficiencies across our business.”
Frontier’s 2022 second-quarter revenue topped $1.46 billion, with a net income of $101 million. In April 2020, the company filed for bankruptcy, “the biggest filing since World Comm in 2002,” according to Bloomberg. Frontier emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May 2021 with plans to expand its fiber network, attributing its financial woes to “significant under-investment in fiber deployment” and vowing to “transform the business from a provider of legacy telecom services over a primarily copper-based network to a next-generation broadband-service provider with long-lived fiber-based infrastructure.”
The bankruptcy shut the spigot on a spending spree driven by the company’s quest to gobble up former Verizon and AT&T wireline operations. By that point, though, Frontier had racked up roughly $17.5 in debt and become one of the nation’s largest telecom companies.
“While the company was going through bankruptcy, it made a lot of the members realize that we deserve more, because while the bankruptcy is going through, we’re working through COVID without any incentive, no increase paid, no hazard pay, not even a gift card like Spectrum workers got,” said Thomas Ham.
Soon after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, adds Ham, “the executives that were in charge at the time filed for a bonus to grant themselves millions.” Frontier’s top executives awarded themselves $37.5 million in bonuses, while postponing $153 million in pension contributions to workers under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act signed by President Donald Trump in March 2020.
Next up are the contract negotiations, and the union is taking these hard-learned lessons to the bargaining table. “Although the issues relating to this grievance are resolved, we are still fighting for a new contract. I have no doubt in my mind that our members are ready, able and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that Frontier provides quality service and good jobs for Californians,” said Frank Arce, CWA District 9 Vice President.