Verizon Strikers Battle Phone Company and Union

August 27, 2011 by  

New York City – After two weeks on the picket lines, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) ordered their striking members back to work at Verizon on Aug. 20—without a contract. Three members of CWA Local 1101, which covers Manhattan and the Bronx, talked about the strike at a supporters’ meeting held the same day that the union agreed for them to return to work while bargaining continued.

Discussion at the well-attended supporters’ meeting, which included workers from other New York and New Jersey unions, ranged over many issues: whether public sentiment is for or against so-called middle-class workers (those with relatively decent wages and benefits), the long-lost concept of “no contract, no work,” and whether, as a result of the massive demonstrations in Wisconsin at the beginning of this year, there is now a new dimension to “class warfare” in which private and public sector unions are linked. Private and public workers’ mutual support appears key to reversing the push to break unions and lower workers’ standard of living.

Verizon employs 45,000 unionized workers. The August strike was the largest U.S. strike since the General Motors strike in 2007 that lasted just two days. But other Verizon workers are not unionized, including the cell phone workers. Verizon claims that it is entitled to cut back its costs for employees who work on declining landline phone services, while the union points out that the company has never been more profitable. The strike was called after six weeks of negotiations, during which Verizon did not budge from its demand for 100 givebacks. Verizon doesn’t claim it cannot afford to maintain the pay and benefits in the expired contract, but instead claims that it should not have to maintain them in this day and age.

“The strike is not over”

Vincent Galvin, a worker with 34 years in the union at Verizon and its predecessor companies, declared at the meeting: “The strike is not over: this is just a time-out.” He said that Verizon was more likely to bargain in good faith now because the strike had crippled its ability to accomplish repairs and installations. He noted the extra repair problems caused by the weather: “God must be a union man, because heavy rain and old copper wires don’t mix.” Phones went out and customers were angry when they weren’t fixed.  Potential customers trying to order new phone service or Fios were being given installation dates in December. An official of one large corporation approached the union and asked whom he could see about getting its phones working; he was directed to go tell the head of Verizon to settle the strike.

The other “success” of the strike was in shutting down cell phone stores, “Verizon’s cash cow.” Galvin noted the great help at the workplace and store picket lines from the public and from members of other unions, including the Transit Workers Union, United Federation of Teachers, District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (New York’s largest public employees union), the Teamsters, and Service Employees International Union 32B-J, especially their youth brigade.

Other strikers we met on a wireless store picket line a few days earlier praised the public’s support in New York City, but feared the company’s campaign to paint the workers as making “too much” and being “greedy” was getting traction elsewhere. The union publicized Verizon’s huge profits––$24.2 billion in 2009 and 2010, and $6.9 billion in the first six months of this year–while it failed to pay any income tax at all, according to the union. But while the union played up “saving middle class jobs,” it failed to attack the idea of give-backs head on. It is not even asking for improvements in pay or benefits, but only to continue current pay and benefits without making concessions.

CWA workers set wages for others

Local 1101 works on landlines and the infrastructure on which cell phones depend. Verizon, Galvin said, does not want to have a work force, preferring to contract out all the work to companies using non-union workers. Verizon claims that the workers must expect to pay a larger share of their health care costs at a time when so many other workers are agreeing to givebacks; Galvin explained that Verizon workers had helped build up the company over the years, including the wireless division and Fios, all the while receiving only small wage increases, and they had done this in return for increases in their benefits.  Due to the phone workers’ long and militant history of unionism, Galvin said, “Everyone in the world is watching us; we set the wages for union and non-union workers.”

Ron Spaulding, with 17 years in the union, spoke about the Rebuild 1101 Movement of rank-and-file members who are challenging the current CWA leadership. The last long and militant strike of phone workers was 22 years ago. Since then, the union has accepted a two-tier system in which new hires have lower pay and fewer benefits and rights. Now anyone hired in 2003 or later has no job security. As Galvin put it, “we gave away the unborn.”

Spaulding described the creative strike activity that had just taken place, including harassing scabs, chasing managers, and shutting down wireless stores. There was great energy, he said, such as the rally of 2,000 strikers when members of Local 1109 marched across the Brooklyn Bridge and joined Local 1101 and others in a mass demonstration. All the speakers remarked on the strike’s good side effect of breaking down long-standing divisions among the union locals that cover different areas in New York and other states.

Strikers see their strength and possibilities

Amy Muldoon, a young Verizon worker, said that “the wheel is turning” toward workers’ victories after a long period of defeats. “I feel like we’re discovering our secret power,” she said, although she knows victory is not guaranteed. She pointed out that the stewards, not the union leadership, instituted the pickets of the wireless stores: “It felt like we were turning the wheel.”

The workers lost two weeks’ pay while on strike, and 59 people are facing disciplinary action. The conditions under which they returned to work on August 22 stipulate that they cannot resume the strike for 30 days, during which period there is no cap on the amount of overtime they can be forced to work. “They will attempt to demoralize us and break us,” Muldoon opined, “but we can have an aggressive in-plant policy, like work-to-rule and pursuing grievances.”

There was also criticism of the union for not preparing for the strike and for failing to provide strike pay, or even to advise the workers during the futile bargaining period that they should save up money for a possible strike. If the strike had continued to the end of the month, the workers would have lost their health insurance coverage. Yet no one hesitated to join the picket lines, the workers reported. They even viewed returning to work under the pay and benefits provisions of the expired contract as a kind of victory, since the alternative was givebacks.

Muldoon had spoken at a large rally a few days earlier outside the Department of Education (DOE), where the Panel for Education Policy (PEP) was voting on a $120 million contract with Verizon. Teachers, transit workers, and the general public turned out with the strikers in a mass rally to oppose renewal of Verizon’s contract. They pointed not only to the strike, but to the recent discovery that a contractor stole $3.6 million dollars from the education system by falsely billing for wiring schools, and Verizon was found to have concealed the theft from the DOE!  Nevertheless, PEP approved a new contract with Verizon.

Several audience members asked if the workers had “a plan” for fighting from the inside now. Galvin suggested that it could take some time to get work back up to speed: “The first week, we’ll all be talking about the strike at the water cooler. The second week, we’ll be so tired from all the activity that we’ll have to rest. The third week, we’ll be remembering how to do our jobs. By the fourth week, I hope we’ll have a contract.”

Relations between private and public workers are key

Some in the audience criticized the CWA for calling off the strike without having a contract in sight, while others noted that the teachers, transit workers, and other unions had done the same thing, and some of them then worked for years under disadvantageous expired contracts. However, it is illegal for public employees in New York to strike, and so easier to force their unions to end strikes through fines and injunctions than it should be to force private sector unions to end strikes. In spite of their differences, public employees’ unions were the biggest supporters of the Verizon strike.

The strikers were asked what supporters could do now that there are no picket lines. The workers suggested they continue to picket the wireless stores, but we haven’t seen that happen.

Much audience discussion focused on the issue of whether new alliances between public and private sector workers could “turn the wheel” back from defeats to victories. One person said that if the Verizon workers give concessions, “the message will be that striking doesn’t work.” Another pointed out that although public sector workers have recently had concessions forced on them, there has been much resistance: in Connecticut, the public workers voted down concessions, but the union forced a re-vote that put them through; New York State public workers were just pressured into passing a concessions contract under threat of massive job cuts, but 40% of the vote was against accepting the contract. And private sector workers sometimes win: the concrete workers at the World Trade Center site went out on strike recently and got a better contract.

Also, it was pointed out, there are organized rank-and-file groups within several unions that could gain control of locals and defeat bad contracts in the future.  Some in the audience termed the Verizon struggle “class warfare” and an overtly political fight, calling it preparation for breaking the union. To the Verizon workers, one supporter said, “thank you for being the spark for war.”

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