The biggest US strike in years has entered its third week, with 39,000 Verizon workers walking the picket lines and holding fiery protests across the Northeast US.
Involving the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the Verizon strike is the nation’s largest since the last walkout at Verizon almost five years ago. And the stakes couldn’t be higher — not only for Verizon employees, but all workers.
Facing a massively profitable corporate enemy with deep pockets and plenty of political connections, union members are defending their hard-earned rights and standard of living against outrageous company demands.
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Verizon is demanding huge givebacks on benefits and job security, and, perhaps worst of all, it is insisting on having the authority to reassign workers anywhere in the company’s network, which extends from Virginia to Massachusetts, for up to two months at a time.
The company offers “family plans” for its cell-phone customers, but its demand for mandatory long-term transfers is the ultimate anti-family plan for workers. It’s part of Verizon’s long-term goal of “Uber-izing” its technicians and line workers into low-pay sub-contractors — or doing away with the landline division altogether.
For their part, union members are fighting to hold on to the gains that they have won through many past strikes against Verizon and its forerunners NYNEX and Bell Atlantic.
Verizon workers won real gains through those struggles — they are some of the last decently compensated union workers in the private sector. But there have been concessions over the past few contract cycles, resulting in the elimination of job security for new hires and lower-tiered health benefits for retirees.
In the last contract fight, CWA and IBEW members were energetic in a 10-day strike in 2011, but union leaders sent them back to work and eventually accepted a deal that required them to pay for health insurance for the first time. This only fueled Verizon’s drive for more, leading to even more aggressive demands.
As the company’s mostly nonunion wireless division has grown, the unionized portion of the Verizon workforce has shrunk from about 80 percent to only 11 percent today, putting strikers in a more vulnerable position.
The company is trying to undercut the sympathy that people have for strikers with a media campaign that paints them as greedy and overpaid.
Management made a big show of offering an additional 1 percent pay increase in its “last, best and final offer.” Their intention was to make it seem as if hourly pay was the main issue in the strike — as opposed to job security and the forced transfers — and then claim that by not accepting the offer, the unions are just holding out for more money.
This is the same tactic that union-busting governors have used against state employees across the country — try to get non-unionized workers to resent teachers and other public sector workers for having decent wages and retirement benefits.
Verizon strikers and their supporters have to turn this logic around and insist that, as one striker put it, paraphrasing an old labor slogan: “What we demand for ourselves, we want for all.” Everyone deserves decent wages and benefits, and our side needs to wage more of the same kind of struggles that earned CWA and IBEW members a higher standard of living in order to win better gains for workers everywhere.
It takes a lot of gall for some of America’s most highly compensated bosses to claim that they can’t afford to keep paying union members a decent wage. Not surprisingly, there is much talk on the picket line about Verizon’s corporate greed.
But it’s important to understand that there is more than personal gluttony at work in this strike. Verizon is a capitalist firm with a vision of reorganizing its entire workforce to compete against its rivals in a global race to the bottom.
The last 20 years have seen both a decline in government regulation of telecommunications and massive technological changes that together have turned the telecom industry upside down.
Verizon — and its predecessors Bell Atlantic and NYNEX — dominated the landline market, but the invention of cellular technology forced it to adapt. While Verizon exploded into the cellular market, it also sought to utilize its existing infrastructure of poles and central offices to offer its Fiber Optic Service (FiOS) — first for the Internet and now for television.
Verizon went into enormous debt to build FiOS, and now it’s going against competitors who not only don’t have a unionized workforce, but often don’t even have their own employees.
Comcast, the nation’s leading provider of high-speed Internet, uses up to 50 percent “independent contractors” to do exactly the same work as Verizon’s FiOS technicians. Needless to say, these contractors have no job security, retirement benefits, medical coverage, nor even sick days.
So even though Verizon is making incredible profits — $39 billion in just the past three years — its executives are concerned that investors will see rivals like Comcast as a better bet for the future. This is the overall direction of the economy: “lean” corporations that demand a flexible workforce and promise nothing in return.
Verizon workers are understandably asking themselves “What more do they want?” about a company that is currently raking in profits. But it’s woven into the fabric of any capitalist enterprise to constantly search for ways to lower labor costs and unload any responsibility to their workforce.
Simply put: It’s not just greed, it’s capitalism, and it’s coming after all of our jobs if we don’t find a way to reverse the tide — starting with Verizon.
The verizon strike shows the power that working people have when they organize together and stop production. The company is already warning investors to expect lower earnings this quarter.
Strikers are receiving widespread support from members of the public and other unions. If they can win the strike, their victory could inspire and embolden thousands of other workers in both the private and the public sector to take action over their own issues at work.
If the workers lose, on the other hand, it would be another hard defeat not just for Verizon workers, but workers across the country. A very public defeat could cut into workers’ willingness to fight elsewhere, and reinforce some of the most conservative elements in the labor movement who think that strikes are an outdated tactic.
After 10 months of stalled negotiations, the unions called the strike in April, both as the company was moving toward imposing its final offer, and as the Democratic presidential primary in New York offered an opportunity to rally public opinion against Verizon.
Bernie Sanders walked picket lines and spoke at strike rallies as part of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Even Hillary Clinton, who has received a hefty share of Verizon’s corporate donations, felt obligated to join a picket line in New York City in order to maintain labor support leading up to the mid-April primary.
But now that the primaries have moved on to other regions, the question is what to do next. Supportive words from politicians won’t be enough to win the strike, and the company is willing to endure some bad publicity and attacks on its corporate brand if it can break its unions and reorganize its workforce.
Verizon announced plans to cancel union members’ health insurance benefits on May 1, and has begun openly encouraging workers to scab and cross picket lines. The company’s highly touted “last, best and final offer” did make minor adjustments around demands for transfers and job security — which shoed that the strike was having an impact — but didn’t budge from the overall framework of aggressive concessions, leading a CWA bargaining report to dismiss it as “little more than the same old bullshit.”
Strikers continue to hold down picket lines, but as bank accounts start to dwindle and families feel the loss of income, it will be crucial to up the ante.
Momentum is always key in a strike. If workers are involved every day and feel like the tide is shifting in their favor, they can stick it out and win. But if inactivity and isolation set in, morale starts dropping, and it can be harder to prevent people from drifting back to work.
Spirited picket lines have succeeded in taking the fight to the largely nonunion Verizon Wireless retail stores, causing a ruckus and driving away potential customers.
In New York City and elsewhere, union members followed scabs back to their hotels and organized rowdy mass picket lines to disrupt normal operations, forcing the hotel companies to expel scabs so as not to disrupt the other guests. The tactic of targeting hotels has emerged as a good way to build mass participation in the strike amongst members and supporters, and is easy to replicate around the region.
In some other locations, there is less coordination between union locals, other than the bulletins coming from the International unions’ websites and the Stand Up to Verizon Facebook page, leaving some union members unaware of what’s going on across their own city. It will be crucial for locals to continue forming links, coordinating their picket line support and targeting of wireless stores, and bringing more and more members into the activity of the strike.
Over the next few weeks, Verizon will be at its most disorganized and vulnerable. Eventually, managers and scabs will get better at doing union work if they are left unimpeded. So now is the time to take action. Chasing scabs out of their hotels, following them to worksites and taking whatever actions possible to disrupt services will be key.
People who want to support the strikers should contact the union local in their area to find out how to visit a picket line and “adopt” a wireless store to picket. Supporters outside the Northeast can picket Verizon Wireless stores, which exist across the country.
If the unions don’t win in the short term, the pressure will build on union members to abandon their picket duty to find work. CWA members receive benefits that are a fraction of their normal wages, and even with unemployment benefits kicking in on the seventh week, members will be strapped for cash. Activists should form local solidarity committees to support picket lines and raise funds, and seek donations from other unions.
Workers who can particularly use support are wireless retail workers in Brooklyn and Massachusetts who unionized in recent years, but haven’t yet won a contract, and are starting from a more vulnerable economic position than most other strikers.
It’s a breakthrough that this is the first Verizon strike to include workers in the company’s wireless division, and people who want to support them can contribute to a GoFundMe page set up to supplement the strike benefits they’re getting from the union.
The CWA and IBEW are also asking supporters to be active on social media. Verizon has received a barrage of bad publicity for attempting to destroy the last vestiges of stable working class jobs. The more union allies share and report on scab work that endangers customers and the public, the better.
In addition, the unions have asked people to not shop at Verizon Wireless stores where pickets are up, and they are looking toward a complete boycott of Verizon Wireless. That will require educating a new generation about why workers need to honor picket lines. Finally, supporters who have Verizon services at home can end electronic bill pay, which will force the company to pay scabs to sort through bills.
There’s an old slogan in the labor movement dating back to the Industrial Workers of the World: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” The reverse is also true. If the 39,000 workers at Verizon win, it will be a victory for all workers facing relentless attacks on our living standards from Corporate America.