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On the Line With Verizon Strikers

Verizon workers walked off the job and took to the streets April 13, beginning the largest US strike in half a decade.

Thirty-nine thousand Verizon workers walked off the job and took to the streets April 13, beginning the largest U.S. strike in half a decade.

They’re filling the streets in energetic rallies — midtown Manhattan was a sea of 8,000 red shirts on Day 6 — and garnering national media attention, even sparking a war of words between Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam.

In New York City, mobile pickets are hot on the heels of scabbing managers. Outside any building where managers are doing union work, dozens of strikers can gather in a matter of minutes.

They’ve also activated a union “alarm clock.” At fancy Manhattan hotels housing out-of-town strikebreakers, hundreds of strikers — backed up by Teamsters Local 814’s inflatable rat “Scabby” and the Hotel Trades Council — picketed loudly in the wee hours and got the hotels to cancel any reservations made in Verizon’s name.

Landline technicians and call-center employees from Massachusetts to Virginia, plus 100 Wireless technicians in New York City, have been without a contract since August 1.

Joining them on strike for the first time are workers at seven Verizon Wireless stores.

“Poster Child of Greed”

The company is pushing to offshore more call-center jobs, outsource more line work to low-wage contractors, and force workers to accept assignments away from home for up to two months at a time — all while it’s making $1.8 billion in profit a month.

“We work for the poster child of corporate greed,” says Josey Allgor, a 25-year employee and chief steward with CWA Local 1101 in Manhattan. “They are making tons of money off our labor. We are not working for a company that’s suffering.”

The Communications Workers (CWA) and Electrical Workers (IBEW) say they’ve offered millions of dollars in health care cost savings, which they believed was a top priority for Verizon, but the company has refused to budge on the unions’ priorities.

Meanwhile, Verizon has netted $39 billion in profit in three years. Its top five executives raked in $44 million in 2014, including $18 million for McAdam. (Last year’s figures haven’t been released.)

The last Verizon strike was in 2011, when 45,000 walked out for two weeks. They returned to work without a deal, finally signing a new contract a year later.

Not this time, said Jerry Flocco, a 20-year field tech and Local 1101 shop steward: “We’re not going back until we get a contract.”

Out-of-Town Assignments

Isaac Collazo has worked as a cable splicer in Manhattan for 19 years. A single father with three sons, he’s concerned about the proposed transfer policy.

“If Verizon sent me out of town for two months, I don’t know how I’d take care of [my 12-year old],” he said. “I’d probably have to quit.”

This “impossible choice” is pushing veteran workers out, Collazo says — and he believes the company is only hurting itself. “It takes years to learn these systems,” he said. “You can’t send some cut-rate contractor underground to work in Manhattan. They’d get lost. That’s why Verizon needs to do everything it can to maintain its experienced workers.”

Experienced workers are the only kind Verizon landline has, because the company hasn’t been hiring in years. As the wireless business grows, CEO McAdam has made no secret of his plans to starve, and ultimately to sell off, the unionized, landline side of the company.

“They’ve been slowly whittling us down,” said 21-year employee Matt King, a FiOS tech out of the garage in State College, Pennsylvania. “We have a lot less people doing the same work.” He’s been sent to Harrisburg — 90 miles away — for two weeks at a time.

To make do with fewer hands, Verizon has become “an out-of-town addict,” said Dan Hylton of CWA Local 2204, “pulling technicians from their home communities and sending them hundreds of miles away.”

As a result, his local area of southwest Virginia is understaffed — which means forced overtime for those left behind. And the existing workforce is forced to work more weekends and holidays, scheduled on a rotating basis.

The company’s current offer, taking workers away from home for up to two months, would “make it even worse,” Hylton said. “It makes it hard to raise families. We can’t coach kids’ sports teams, or be there to take care of our wives.”

Flexibility for Whom?

Verizon is also trying to merge jobs, so that all techs must be able to do everything, said network tech Pat Fahy of IBEW Local 487 in New Jersey. “They’re trying to mechanize our jobs more and more,” he said, “to make us pieces of machinery they can just move around.”

As the company eliminates jobs that were less stressful on workers’ bodies, Fahy said, “it’s getting harder and harder for older technicians. Their knees are shot, their backs are shot. It’s getting harder and harder to find a place [in the company].”

Along with the 39,000 strikers, the negotiations affect 80,000 retirees. The company is proposing to raise the price on their medical benefits at the same pace as current employees’ benefits, even though retirees are on a fixed income.

In recent months, crews of retirees have organized pickets and parking-lot blockades to defend their health care. “The stronger the union is, the better off we are,” said Tom Smucker, president of CWA 1101 Retired Members Council.

Plus, he said, “I’m old, and I’d like the next generation to grow up in a world with some sort of protections — with health care, pensions, and job security.”

Managers, too, are getting pressure from above. “More second-level bosses are fearing for their jobs now,” said King. “In the past, you never had to deal with or know the name of third-level bosses,” such as the company’s regional directors. Now union members across the Verizon footprint can tell you exactly which high-level manager is pushing the increased discipline and stress in their region.

Sanders Backs Strikers

The strikers drew immediate support from other unions and from Sanders, who was in New York campaigning in the lead-up to the April 19 presidential primary. He joined strikers at their rally in downtown Brooklyn, and 150 strikers got front-row seats at a Sanders rally in Manhattan.

“Thank you for your courage in standing up against corporate greed,” Sanders said, calling Verizon “just another major American corporation trying to destroy the lives of working Americans.”

McAdam called Sanders’ remarks “uninformed” and “contemptible.” “I welcome the contempt of Verizon’s CEO,” the senator shot back.

CWA endorsed Sanders’ campaign in December, after a member vote. The senator has consistently backed the telecom workers, including during a four-month strike at FairPoint. IBEW hasn’t endorsed, though at least 30 of its locals are backing Bernie.

New York City subway worker Jonathan Beatrice came out to rally with the strikers fresh from a press conference where his union, Transport Workers Local 100, announced its own Sanders endorsement.

“Employers are united as well,” Beatrice said. “If they see that Verizon can get away with concessions from the CWA, with outsourcing and making them pay for their health care, then the [Metropolitan Transit Authority] will do it to their workers.”

A thousand members of the New York State Nurses joined the strike lines in Albany.

Seven Wireless Stores

Workers at seven Verizon Wireless stores are on an unfair labor practice strike over the August firing of union activist Bianca Cunningham.

“This is my first strike — and there’s a lot more support than I expected,” said sales rep Mike Tisei. Workers at his store in Everett, Massachusetts, and at six stores in Brooklyn voted to join CWA in 2014. Two years later, they’re still without a first contract.

“We go in with high hopes, but it’s kind of like talking to a brick wall,” said bargaining team member Tatiana Hill, a sales rep in Brooklyn. One of the union’s top priorities is to win just-cause protection, to make workers less dependent on managers’ whims.

Since she started five years ago, Hill says, her workload has increased dramatically. “We used to have technicians in the store, and we had sales and customer service,” she said. “Now, literally, sales reps do every single thing.”

Despite their increased responsibilities, Wireless workers’ commission checks have generally gone down, while base pay raises have been insubstantial. It takes 17 years to reach the top pay rate.

Though many of her co-workers have worked at Verizon Wireless for five years or more, “the majority of Brooklyn [employees] live with their parents or someone else,” Hill said. “We don’t want to live at home with our parents and families, but you can’t afford to pay rent on those kind of salaries.”

“I’d love to have a house,” said Tisei, “but if my paycheck’s going to drop, I can’t get one. Not with the inconsistencies of the checks.”

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