Tim Dubnau knew that helping lead a strike of almost 40,000 workers against Verizon Communications was going to be tough. But he had no idea that he would find himself, as he did on Wednesday, crammed in the back of an unmarked white van, terrified, being chased through the streets of Alabang, a city on the outskirts of Manila, by a group of armed men on motorcycles.
And the situation only got more tense when the men surrounded the van, forcing it to pull over, and called in a SWAT team of heavily armed Philippine police officers.
“It was like being in a movie–they were dressed all in black with masks and automatic rifles,” Dubnau recalled in an interview with Fortune. “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.”
Inside the van with Dubnau, an organizing coordinator at the Communications Workers of America union, were three visiting strikers from the United States. They were joined by representatives from a local call center workers group called BIEN Pilipinas, fellow local labor group Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), and the international telecommunications union Uni.
To gain a little extra publicity for their cause, the group had tried to visit a Verizon (VZ) office near one of the third-party call centers the company uses to handle some U.S. customer service duties. Instead of just being ejected and told to go home, the group was followed by a private security group from the Verizon building and chased through the streets.
After police arrived on the scene, as captured on phone videos viewed by Fortune, a local KMU representative got out of the van to negotiate a truce. Both sides agreed to go to the nearby District 3 police station in Alabang, where the matter was sorted out. Everyone was allowed to go home and the police filed no charges.
The over-the-top reaction by local Verizon officials, however, was just the latest move on both sides in a now month-long strike that seems to be escalating further each day. Verizon has accused union members in the United States of vandalizing company lines and following and harassing replacement workers. The union has taken its picket lines nationwide, called for a boycott of Verizon’s popular wireless service, and even tried to impose severance and stock-based compensation restrictions on management via shareholder proposals at the company’s annual meeting last week in Albuquerque.
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Despite all the heat, there’s been little progress in negotiating a settlement. The employees who went on strike generally work from Massachusetts to Virginia installing and servicing Verizon’s wireline telephone and FiOS Internet and television service. They had been working without a contract for nearly 10 months when they walked out on April 13.
The two unions involved, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, say they cannot accept Verizon proposals that would allow additional outsourcing of call center workers to the Philippines and Mexico, greater use of nonunion contractors, and the assignment of employees to other cities for up to two months at a time.
Verizon says is offering a 7.5% wage hike for the new contract over the next few years but also needs new work rules to gain greater flexibility and lower costs as its telephone business shrinks and its wireless business becomes ever more important. Last year, for example, the wireless unit brought in revenue of $91.7 billion, up 5% from a year earlier, and an operating profit of nearly $30 billion. The older wireline unit, which also includes wired video and Internet service, brought in revenue of only $37.7 billion, a 2% decline from the year before, and an operating profit of just $2.2 billion.
In some ways, the call center employees in the Philippines, who work for third parties that contract with Verizon, are caught in the middle.
They are paid less than $2 an hour in regular wages. After the strike began, they were required to work an additional shift— a sixth day per week—plus one to two extra hours of overtime on their normal shifts. But promised overtime pay covering the extra hours has not been forthcoming, according to BIEN. Some call center workers protested by intentionally slowing their work and by reaching out to the U.S. strikers via the world’s most used social network, Facebook.
“We started to investigate on our own why are the U.S. workers on strike,” one call center employee told Fortune in a telephone interview from the Philippines. He asked that his name not be used to protect his job security. “On Facebook, we saw the [U.S.] workers started to have protests, so we made contact.”
The Facebook messages quickly escalated into a plan to meet in the Philippines and draw further attention to Verizon’s use of low-cost, outsourced labor.
When the CWA representative and Verizon workers arrived in the Philippines this week, they participated in a rally on Wednesday outside one of the call center offices in Quezon City near Manila. After passing out leaflets and talking with the workers there, they headed off to the local Verizon headquarters where the confrontation became much more dangerous.
Verizon declined to comment about details of events in the Philippines. But the company accused the union of wasting money and failing to help resolve the strike by sending its representatives across the Pacific.
“Why in the world would the CWA, led by president Chris Shelton, spend tens of thousands of dollars to send a dozen or so CWA members to the Philippines for a fancy vacation at a time when 36,000 of our employees are lucky to get $200 a week from a union strike fund?,” Verizon said in a statement to Fortune. “Union members need to ask Chris Shelton and other union leaders whether they really think this perplexing tactic will lead to a new contract and bring our employees back to work where they get excellent wages, healthcare and retirement benefits.”