Telephony / September 23, 1996
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- Under somber, drizzly skies, 30 or so Communications Work-ers of America unionists -- all dressed in black -- staged a mock funeral last Friday outside a Bell Atlantic residential service center in Calverton, Md., to protest deteriorating working conditions.
"Here lies Bell Atlantic service. You've served us well. Rest in peace," intoned Katie Mazzi, president of CWA Local 2108, as colleagues lowered a casket into the rear of a waiting Cadillac hearse and "Amazing Grace" blared from a nearby loudspeaker.
Mazzi, a 26-year Bell Atlantic veteran and full-time union activist, told Telephony that customer service representatives -- now called "sales consultants" -- are forced by their bosses to sell additional services such as call-waiting and call-forwarding to customers who call in for repairs, to the point where it interferes with solving customers' problems. Some 98% of the company's 500 consultants, she says, are dissatisfied with their jobs.
"Bell Atlantic employees are dedicated workers, but they're not being allowed to do their jobs because of mismanagement at the highest levels of the corporation," Mazzi said. "This company failed to forecast the growth it's now experiencing. The best way to keep the customer base in light of competition is name recognition. The worst thing is when Bell Atlantic begins bringing in contract workers, and then real Bell Atlantic workers have to come in and clean up the mess."
Gregory Farrell, a sales consultant, "eulogized" the company, saying "prices are going up, service is going down, and customers are paying for it."
The funeral antics, repeated at Bell Atlantic service centers in Richmond, Va., and elsewhere throughout the telco's six-state territory, were quietly observed from a distance by company spokeswoman Shannon Fioravanti, who calls the union's charges nonsense.
"Approximately 85% of our customers who dial in reach a live operator within 20 seconds," said Fioravanti, adding that Bell Atlantic is in the process of bringing in 800 new customer service reps, including 200 in Maryland alone, to deal with the increased volume.
Despite the workers' allegations, Bell Atlantic prides itself on having one of the industry's best reputations for service. The company is in the midst of pulling off a $20 billion merger with New York-based Nynex Corp., which has a poor service record.
"There's no question that these positions are fast-paced jobs. This is the nature of the work," said the spokeswoman. "However, the allegations of so-called cruel and unusual punishment are absolutely false. This is a 37-1/2 hour workweek. It is not forced overtime unless there are too few volunteers. We have extremely high standards."