The first mass labor strike in the age of austerity has hit the United States .
When the clock struck 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, 45,000 Verizon landline workers from Massachusetts to Virginia struck the nation’s largest wireless carrier, beginning the biggest worker strike in several years.
Since contract negotiations began on June 22, Verizon has been demanding up to 100 concessions from thousands of technicians and customer support employees in its wire lines division. The workers – who are represented by Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) – voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike in the event that a settlement was not reached by Saturday night when the previous contract expired.
Workers geared up for the possible strike a week before with a 20,000-strong rally in Manhattan outside of Verizon’s corporate headquarters. As soon as the midnight deadline passed on Saturday night, the picket lines were set into motion and workers were mobilized to stop the company from rolling back decades of collective bargaining gains.
The givebacks that Verizon is trying to squeeze out of the striking workers are staggering when one considers that the company raked in $10 billion in profits in 2010. In its most recent quarter alone, Verizon took in $3.2 billion in profits and its top five executives were paid a total of $258 million over the last four years in salaries and bonuses. The telecommunications giant is also a notorious corporate tax-dodger that hasn’t paid a dime in federal income taxes for the last two years, yet it received a $1.3 billion federal tax rebate this year.
Still, the company wants more – and it’s going after its workforce to get it. Its long list of proposals amounts to $1 billion a year in concessions, which is equivalent to about $20,000 for every worker, according to CWA.
Among the concessions Verizon is demanding, cuts to benefits and job security protections will have the most damaging impact on working conditions and living standards. Verizon is seeking to weaken job security provisions, pass 25 percent of health care costs onto workers, and freeze pensions for current employees while eliminating them for future workers.
Additional cutbacks would get rid of accident disability benefits, slash sickness disability benefits, reduce the number of paid holidays, and decrease the maximum for annual paid sick days to five; workers with less than two years of seniority would get no paid sick leave at all. And while real unemployment nationally rose to over 16 percent in June, Verizon also wants a freer hand to outsource jobs to low-wage contractors and move work overseas.
In a statement released on the first day of the strike, CWA said the strike would continue “until Verizon stops its Wisconsin-style tactics and starts bargaining seriously.”
“Even at the 11th hour, as contracts were set to expire, Verizon continued to seek to strip away 50 years of collective bargaining gains for middle class workers and their families,” the statement said.
IBEW President Edwin D. Hill echoed CWA’s outrage. “We cannot stand by while one of the richest, most successful corporations in the world joins the race to decimate the middle class of this country,” he said.
At the southern end of the stoppage, Verizon workers in Washington , DC formed a picket as early as Sunday afternoon at a downtown Verizon store. The following day, a sea of red shirts blanketed the area outside of Verizon’s Chesapeake Complex in Silver Spring , Maryland as strikers and supporters in CWA t-shirts gathered for a rally that drew up to 500 people.
Carrying signs that read “Verizon, can you hear us now?,” workers at one point blocked a scab truck attempting to enter the complex parking lot.
Les Evans, president of CWA Local 2108, said the company gave the union no choice but to strike. “They’re making billions but are rolling back half a century of advances. This is about busting the union,” he said.
In the morning on day three of the walk-out, a few picketers assembled at a Verizon hub in Northeast D.C. , equipped with signs, water, coffee and donuts donated by supporters. The mostly African-American workers – members of CWA Local 2336 – have been scheduled for picket duty in rotating four-hour shifts.
Jonathan Leonard, a 23-year Verizon systems technician and vice president of Local 2336, said they had about 90 percent of workers participating in the pickets.
“This all started in Wisconsin . This is corporate greed and I think this country is waking up after Wisconsin,” said Leonard, pointing to attacks on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin that have emboldened union-busting among employers in the private sector. “There’s no way this company can say, while it makes billions in profit, it needs to attack our benefits.”
Members of CWA and IBEW have historically been successful at using work stoppages in the telecom industry to resist concessions. Defending high-quality health care has been a key strength of the unionized workforce since the 1980s, with strikes in 1983, 1986, 1989, 1998 and 2004 ending in victory for workers who were able to beat back attempts by management to impose premium sharing and other concessions.
But over the past decade, Verizon has steadily weakened its union workforce with a persistent campaign of anti-union tactics. Since 2003 the company has managed to shrink its union workforce on the east coast from 75,000 to 45,000 through its use of buyouts, job cuts and moving work to non-union subsidiaries. In the same period, Verizon has grown its non-union workforce to 135,000.
These and other factors – such as increased automation – may make the company less vulnerable to strikes and pose a challenge for Verizon workers on the picket line today.
When the strike began on Sunday, Verizon said in a statement that “Tens of thousands of Verizon managers and other personnel have been trained to step in and perform emergency work assignments,” ensuring there would be “limited disruption in service” for the duration of the strike.
But at the facility in D.C., Robin, who has worked at Verizon for 37 years, said the scabs that the company is bringing can’t perform the jobs that they do. “This is on-the-job training. I was trained for years to do this work,” she said.
Keith Morris, another technician who’s been with the company for 18 years, said the scabs Verizon is using in the DC-area are mostly out-of-state contractors and management personnel who have not done customer service work in years. In other locations up north, managers who are unable to fix or install anything have reportedly admitted that they have been dispatched to simply drive trucks around until they run out of gas.
As Morris spoke about the cuts to health care that the company is demanding, three scab service vehicles moved toward to exit of the lot. He and the six coworkers at his side moved in toward the center of the driveway, heckling the contractors in the trucks for crossing the picket line. They temporarily delayed the vehicles from leaving the hub.
Verizon claims that the givebacks they are demanding from workers are necessary because of years of decline in its copper landline business, which has suffered as customers have turned more to mobile phones and cable providers that bundle together landline and TV services in their packages.
Both unions have aptly pointed to the absurdity of Verizon – the largest wireless phone company in the country – maintaining it is losing business due to the increase in the use of cell phones over landlines. The company’s reported profits belie the claims of suffering business that it is trying to use to justify attacks on workers’ living standards.
Verizon has also been relying on talking-points that assert technicians make over $100,000 a year. In reality, workers say such pay levels are a rarity that exists only for employees who put in massive amounts of overtime, which is not readily available to all workers. While the chairman of the company’s board made $55,000 a day last year, workers point out, many employees of the company don’t even make that much in a year.
On bargaining issues, picketers like Morris say health care is the most serious concern for workers. Almost two years after the Obama administration’s signature health care “reform” that was supposed to increase coverage and affordability, the high-quality health care that should be a right enjoyed by all is one of the main benefits under attack at Verizon. This is no accident, however, as labor journalist and historian Steve Early observed in a recent article.
The health care reform excise tax on higher cost plans has become a lever for companies to force through large reductions in medical coverage for employees. Even though the tax isn’t scheduled to take effect until 2018, Early points out, “Nevertheless, as the current benefit imbroglio at Verizon illustrates, this is the poison pill in [the health care reform law] that’s already making union bargaining more difficult, even at hugely profitable firms.”
In fact, it was only last month that Verizon told its workers that the company needed to start accounting for the costs of the tax now, requiring it to “modify plan designs to avoid the impact of the tax.” Hence Verizon’s aggressive push to cut health benefits.
But for the strike itself, the action at Verizon is significant not just for its size but in terms of the context in which it is taking place. The last major strike in the telecom industry occurred in 2004 with a four-day strike at SBC Communications involving 102,000 workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The last major strike larger than the one at Verizon involved 74,000 General Motors workers who walked out for two days in 2007.
Those strikes were brief and also preceded the global economic crisis that since 2008 has backed workers further into a corner following decades of decline in real wages, unionization and living standards. Today’s strike at Verizon comes at a time of economic turmoil and unprecedented attacks on workers’ rights nationwide.
At the bargaining table, the impasse has continued as Verizon negotiators have been repeatedly cancelling bargaining sessions with the union, according to CWA. The union also claims that several workers have been injured by scab trucks at some locations. Meanwhile, Verizon is accusing strikers of sabotaging some of its systems.
In Northeast D.C. , Leonard said Local 2336 would be running mobile pickets starting next week, using personal vehicles to follow scab trucks to job sites. Locals in Manhattan and Massachusetts have said that mobile pickets are already being deployed.
Due to relative advantages that Verizon has gained through outsourcing and other changes over the years, CWA leaders have made it clear that conventional strike tactics will not be effective in this strike. As such, the unions are targeting Verizon wireless stores to turn away customers, hitting the company’s biggest source for profits.
But some rank-and-file workers are critical of union leaders who say they are willing to resume bargaining when Verizon removes its take-it-or-leave-it proposal from the table. While CWA is in a weak bargaining position in many respects and IBEW locals don’t even have strike funds, some workers say returning to work without a contract would make fighting off concessions that much more difficult.
For Leonard, this struggle is bigger than Verizon. “We need to take a stand because if they can do it to us, they can do it to workers at other companies across the country,” he said.
Indeed, while the austerity agenda in Washington has established “the new normal” as defined by social cuts, attacks on public sector jobs and services, and low taxes for the wealthy, the same upside-down dynamics are mirrored in the private sector, where executive salaries are skyrocketing to obscene heights at companies like Verizon even as they demand severe cuts at the bottom.
This is why – following the debt ceiling charade and amid panic on Wall Street – the fight being waged by Verizon workers is so instructive. In the climate of budget cuts and union-busting, the impact of the strike could transmit far beyond Verizon’s networks.
And if the workers win, their victory would signal a shift in the battle lines in the war on workers.
Brian Tierney is an independent labor journalist in Washington, DC. Read more of his work at Subterranean Dispatches, where this article first appeared.