Tower climbers rally outside Verizon shareholder meeting

While tower union workers staged a rally outside Verizon’s shareholder meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday, CEO Hans Vestberg agreed to a meeting with the Tower Climbers Union/CWA to discuss tower safety standards.

During a Q&A session at the end of the shareholder meeting, Tommy Schuch, a veteran tower climber and member of the Tower Climbers Union/CWA, asked Vestberg point blank if he would agree to meet with the union to discuss their concerns, according to a CWA recording of the meeting shared with media.

Vestberg acknowledged how he rose through the ranks on the network side of the wireless business and said he knows how important that work is – and that the health and safety of workers is the No. 1 priority. He also said they will see about getting a meeting set up with the union. 

Schuch, who is based in the Chicago area, told Fierce today that he was “very surprised” by Vestberg’s response and he's very pleased to hear that of his willingness to meet. Details have yet to be worked out, but Schuch said a union representative will be following up with that.

UPDATE*: After this story first published, Verizon provided Fierce with the following statement: "Workplace safety is a top concern for Verizon. We will follow up to ensure that the appropriate people meet to address the safety concerns expressed."

Wireless tower technicians staged the rally at Salt Lake City Marriott University Park on Thursday to demand that Verizon improve safety standards for its subcontracted tower climbers. The tower climbers typically are not directly employed by the wireless carriers, complicating negotiations.

Tower technicians formed a union with CWA in May 2022. The union points out that wireless tower climbing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S., with climbers working hundreds of feet in the air, often in adverse weather conditions. But their compensation doesn’t match the work that they do; by one estimate, the national average income for a tower climber is $42,000 a year.

Calls for change

Schuch told Fierce that he and his colleagues are fed up with some of the working conditions to which they’re subjected: long hours, too little training for those new to the job and lousy compensation. They’re well aware of the dangers of climbing towers, he said, and wouldn’t be doing the job if they weren’t passionate about it, but a lot of things need to change to make the job sites safer.

Verizon has been aggressively deploying C-band spectrum to catch up with T-Mobile’s vast 2.5 GHz rollout for 5G, putting more pressure on tower technicians that are tasked with deploying gear. AT&T also is on a fast track to get more mid-band spectrum deployed for 5G.

The tower climbers are pointing the finger at all of the carriers – AT&T and T-Mobile included – and the public tower companies American Tower, Crown Castle and SBA Communications.

Fierce reached out to AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, American Tower, Crown Castle and SBA, as well as NATE, CTIA and WIA. None of them responded with a direct comment about the tower climbers’ latest concerns.  

However, a Crown Castle representative shared remarks Crown Castle CEO Jay Brown made during his session at WIA’s ConnectX trade show in New Orleans earlier this week.

“We are holding ourselves to a very high standard of ensuring the people that do work on our sites are able to go home at night in the same condition that they showed up,” Brown said. “If we don’t do that collectively, no one of us can have as good a safety record as what we wanted. The industry’s voice, both in terms of development of new workers as well as speaking to issues like safety, allow all of us on stage and all of you in the audience to do better on a critically important area around safety and improving the safety of our sites. "

NATE has a history of advocating for tower climbers’ safety, but NATE President and CEO Todd Schlekeway told Fierce the organization was not commenting on the CWA survey or the petition that tower workers are circulating.

According to the survey, more than 65% of wireless tower technicians have been on a job site where someone has been injured and 4% of them have been on a job site where someone has been killed.

The union says the survey exposes a nearly universal lack of adequate safety rules and training by employers. Coupled with pressure to meet deadlines imposed by the carriers and tower owners, and hazardous rules outside of workers’ control, they’re seeing increased injuries and incidents, many of which they say are never even investigated.

CWA President Chris Shelton sent letters to the CEOs of AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Dish, American Tower, SBA and Crown Castle in which Shelton called out wireless carriers and tower owners for dodging the responsibility of ensuring worker safety through layers of contracting and demanded a Tower Technicians’ Bill of Rights.

*This story was updated with comment from Verizon.