LITTLE ROCK — New York-based Verizon Communications Chief Executive Ivan Seidenberg on Thursday faced union workers upset about his company’s pending $8.6 billion sale of rural landline assets to Frontier Communications.
The exchange was at the Peabody Little Rock hotel at Verizon’s annual shareholders meeting, which about 200 people attended. Verizon said last month that it varies the gathering’s location each year to make it convenient for shareholders around the nation.
Several dozen members of the Communications Workers of America union - at the meeting and on the nearby sidewalk in front of the Statehouse Convention Center - spoke out against Verizon layoffs nationwide, as well as those they said will come from the sale of rural phone lines to Frontier.
Verizon, which has about 220,000 employees, laid off 7,413 in the fourth quarter, The Associated Press reported in late January. The company said at the beginning of the year that it expects about 13,000 positions to be cut on the wireline side of the company this year, about the same as in 2009, the AP said.
No mention was made during the meeting of the cuts that Verizon Wireless, which is co-owned by Verizon Communications and Vodafone, has made in Arkansas. About 600 people have lost jobs in the state since Verizon bought Little Rock-based Alltel Corp. in January 2009. (Verizon has said layoffs at the Little Rock headquarters will be less than originally thought.)
Mark Franken of Austin, Texas, one of the protesters outside the meeting, said Frontier’s deal to buy the rural assets in 14 states is bad for Verizon workers and affected communities.
“Anytime these companies merge, they cut jobs,” Franken said.
The protesters - who Franken said were from Arkansas, Texas and the East Coast - also were on hand Wednesday, protesting other issues at Little Rock-based Windstream Corp.’s annual meeting, also in downtown Little Rock.
Union representatives said they also opposed the sale of rural landline assets because Frontier will take on a large amount of debt and, they said, be unable to invest in their broadband network, which is necessary for the economic growth of communities.
Companies that bought lines from Verizon in the pasthave gone into bankruptcy, they said, such as FairPoint Communications, which bought Verizon lines in New England, as well as Hawaiian Telecom, which bought Verizon lines in Hawaii.
Seidenberg said at the meeting that he wouldn’t address every point on the Frontier deal made by the workers.
“You guys don’t like it; we like it,” he said. “We already know that.”
But he said he thinks affected communities will see better broadband service through the sale, which was announced a year ago and is to close in mid-2010.
Frontier is focused on rural landline service, while Verizon concentrates on urban wireless service, he said.
Seidenberg said Verizon has no plans currently to sell any more of the landlines.
Arkansas is not one of the states affected by the Frontier sale.
All proposals introduced by Verizon shareholders were voted down by majorities. Among the measures were a proposal for a policy to prevent discrimination based on sexual identity; a shareholder right to call special meetings, and a proposal that would tie the vesting or paying out of stock awards with company performance.
Verizon’s board of directors had opposed the proposals.
Several of the proposals achieved more than 30 percent support by shareholders in preliminary results. One, a proposal to require shareholder approval for agreements or policies that would pay benefits for executives after death, garnered more than 40 percent.
The Firefighters’ Pension System of Kansas City, which sponsored the proposal, said executives could pay for such benefits themselves, such as by buying life insurance.
Also at the meeting, Verizon’s 13 directors were elected; Ernst & Young was approved as the company’s independent auditor; and shareholders approved Verizon’s overall pay-for-performance policies.