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The telecommunications world is in a veritable frenzy these days as companies — and investors — race to take advantage of the seemingly insatiable demand for bigger, faster communications systems. Even as the Nasdaq sinks, startups involved in optical communications are pushing ahead with massive IPOs — at least half a dozen will go out this week alone. Huge telecom conglomerates like Deutsche Telekom and WorldCom continue to shop for new properties and appear willing to pay almost any price for wireless networks. It’s quintessential Internet economy stuff: nimble startups with killer technology, cash-rich former monopolists and high-wire financiers circle a set of opportunities created by the Net’s unstoppable growth. At the same time, though, a typical old economy story is unfolding in the very same business: Some 85,000 workers at Verizon Communications were, as of last Thursday, preparing to strike. The main issues in the dispute are job security, benefits and the ability of the union to organize workers in the company’s fast-growing wireless and broadband operations. It’s easy to view the situation as little more than an anachronism. Labor issues are virtually never mentioned in the frenzy of telecom dealmaking, and the union’s demands can seem almost quaint. The new economy, after all, is about flexibility and speed and the ability to reinvent. Internet Economy executives tend to believe they could never compete if they had to adhere to union work rules. Many workers, moreover, believe they can look out for their best interests much better than any union can. And it’s certainly true that in occupations ranging from journalism to engineering to telephone answering, nonunion Internet Economy companies have often been able to offer far better wages and working conditions than old-economy union shops. Still, the decline of the Nasdaq is likely to reopen the whole issue of labor relations. If you are Amazon.com or Webvan, the promise of rewards from stock options is a key element in keeping delivery people, customer-service reps and warehouse workers happy. But what happens when the market takes away that prospect? As long as the economy is booming, people aren’t so worried about job security. But what happens in the next recession? The fact is that most people are less interested in risk and change than new-economy evangelists would like us to believe. And as the Internet economy matures, employees are likely to be more than a little interested in the kinds of things that the Communications Workers of America is fighting for at Verizon. The challenge for Internet firms — the new generation of telecom companies included — is to make their companies great places to work even during down markets. The challenge for unions is to show how they can support the aspirations of their members in an environment that is different from the one they are used to. And the challenge for employees is to make sure that the new economy promise of a new way of working is backed up by more than a vague promise of possible future wealth. Without all of this, labor strife alongside unprecedented growth and opportunity is likely to look a lot less like an anomaly. Copyright � 2000 The Industry Standard
Using ADR to Resolve Employment Disputes. August 22 – September 6

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