On August 1, 2015, the IBEW and CWA contract with Verizon expired. However, unlike previous years, they decided to not strike, a move meant to undermine the company’s hiring and housing of scabs. This is a labor struggle that will have a major impact on the entire labor movement. “I think the days of the short strike is over. Verizon wants to break the union and is willing to overwork lower levels of management in the process,” said Dan Murphy, a retired member of the union. But it also could impact customer service for one of the biggest telephone, internet, and television providers in America as well as basic issues of privacy.
The current ownership of the Verizon Communications Corporation is one of the most militantly anti-union groups in the country. Their CEO Lowell McAdam has been public about his intention to “kill the copper”, eliminating all the landline service within the Verizon network. How that would impact customer service will be addressed later, but from a labor perspective, it is important to understand that these words translate to plain old fashioned union busting. But first a little explanation is required.
Verizon as a company is in fact two extremely segregated workforces, the unionized wire telecom services provider and the nonunion wireless provider. By eliminating the wireline business, including copper cable and FiOS fiber optic, the company would be able to justify a significant series of layoffs, diluting the union presence. In February 2015, Verizon sold off the copper landlines in fourteen states and fiber wireline footprint of FiOS West to Frontier Communications. They would have sold more of the FiOS service, but the unionized labor costs were far too great. Therefore, when their two-year contract expired last month, this presented the company with an opportunity to bust two of the major labor unions in America, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and Communications Workers of America (CWA).
There have previously been signals that Verizon is trying to eliminate the landlines and therefore the unions. Following Hurricane Sandy, they were given substantial subsidies to rebuild the infrastructure, funding that would have covered 50% of their costs, but they claimed the storm’s damage was too significant to rebuild. This is of course complete nonsense.
In June, the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications released a damning report that showed Verizon had broken a major agreement with the Five Burroughs. In 2008, the company had accepted a bargain in exchange for a cable television franchise, agreeing to lay fiber optic cable and bring high-speed internet to everyone in the city. But apparently, the company merely activated the cable service and refused to roll out the fiber optic, thereby keeping unionized workers from acting on what would have been the most fruitful jobs on the Eastern seaboard. In response to the report, Verizon denied the charges and blamed the union.
The general feeling of the workers is that the company wants to take all the money and run, as made obvious by the sale to Frontier. The company is trying to reduce the workforce, wants to raise the cost of healthcare despite the savings created by the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and gut job security. Already they have had some success, forcing workers to pay into a 401 (k) as opposed to the pension system that defined the benefits package of the Ma Bell and Baby Bell telephone companies for generations.
As the end of the contract approached, unionized customer call center workers noticed something very odd. First, under the auspices of a farcical ’employee well-being’ effort, the company cut the hours of the Providence office significantly, from 7 am-11 pm to 7 am-7 pm. Overtime was offered during peak hours to other offices for reasons sources tell me had to do with hurting the New England labor force. ‘Preferred shifts’ were offered to employees as part of a re-canvass of the office, allowing workers to keep their different pay, but it still was problematic for both the work and outside life of many employees.
Then, as closing approached, the workers noticed their call queues jump into the hundreds every night. Sources tell me they see this as a blatant sign that the company was training scab labor in this window of time. This and a variety of other signs led the union leadership to choose not to strike as they did two years ago.
But this is not a painless effort, it is causing great stress for the workers and their families. They are going in to work daily and getting pay as well as benefits, but they have no arbitration process in place in case of grievances. Hoping to provoke a walk out and implement their scab workforce, the company made a proposal to the unions that was repulsive. And keep in mind, Frontier, who just bought a large section of the Verizon network, settled with IBEW and CWA without a strike very recently. The writing is on the wall, this is an effort to destroy the union, a serious blow to organized labor that would carry as much of an effect as the laws passed by Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin just a few years ago.
There are, however, some interesting developments to consider. Recently, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that corporations must directly participate in negotiations with labor unions at franchises. Previously, if a union were to form at a fast food restaurant that is a franchise, the union would need to negotiate with the individual owners. But now, should Verizon Wireless franchise workers choose to organize, Verizon would need to directly negotiate with the side of their business they have worked so hard to prevent from doing so. As such, a union victory here could eventually lead to an organization drive in Verizon stores by the CWA, who organizes groups like graduate students and nontraditional workplaces.
The issue of customer service is fundamentally an issue of unionized labor. If the call centers are unionized, then the customers will get quality service. Furthermore, if the service is union-certified, it carries with it a level of insurance that can be the difference between life and death. That might strike some as a bit hyperbolic, but anyone who has ever dialed 911 knows exactly what I mean.
The company has engaged in a series of practices intentionally meant to break the union, including the roll-out of automation tools that have hindered the ability of unionized workers and shortened shifts. For readers who are Verizon customers, they probably have begun to experience instances when they 4 out of 5 times have quality customer service, but then 1 out of 5 times they have had awful service. This is not an accident, it is because the company has been redirecting calls to non-union contractor offices either at vendor centers within the US or in Latin America where the labor force has no access to the services they are supporting. This is particularly gruesome because these laborers are subjected to brutal work regimens for little money and can be disciplined if calls last longer than a few minutes.
One source told me “If Verizon really cared about working families, they wouldn’t be paying basically what equates to slave wages in South America and minimum wages to folks in other vendor centers.” Should Verizon break the unions, customer service, which they do not care about, would drop significantly and it would be equivalent to Time Warner or Comcast, who have totally non-union help lines. A source told me that s/he sees the work of non-union customer service reps in the files of people s/he works with. S/he said there are problem-solving steps skipped, wrong answers, and a lack of literacy in the products being serviced because these workers are so poor they do not have access to these first-world niceties.
But there are other issues to consider. Currently, our internet and cable in America is the highest-priced for the lowest-quality service in the developed world. In comparison to South Korea, a nation that only exists because of the American military presence in the Pacific, we are a joke. Even Google Fiber and municipally-owned internet services embarrass Verizon. This lack of quality can be attributed to what is labelled by many as the ‘oligopoly’. In essence, the major cable companies have conspired to fix the prices and speeds of the utilities so to maximize profits and minimize user satisfaction. Our existing infrastructure is capable of much higher capacities but is intentionally prevented from reaching full potential by the corporations’ collusion and greed. A unionized workforce helps serve as a final barrier to complete corporate hegemony and consumer robbery.
But also consider the aforementioned copper cable. Currently, Verizon is allowing the existing lines, some of which are literally wrapped in paper, to rot. This is so they can roll out a wireless service that would cut back the necessary unionized workers significantly. The proposed method would be Verizon installs on every house an LTE-X antennae that receives the broadcast video and data signals. Leaving aside the obvious health concerns to be raised by flooding the area with that many electro-magnetic bursts of energy, there is the issue of quality of service. Wireless phone service is inferior to copper cable, with higher wait times and fewer amenities. Also, important health and safety services, such as LifeAlert and 911, do not always work with wireless in the same fashion they do with copper cable. And when you are in a health emergency where seconds can mean life or death, a little bit of lag can result in a lot of grief.
Some of the infrastructure for wireless calling that would end copper cable as we know it has already been put in place. For example, in New York, Verizon Voice Link has already begun the roll-out of wireless-based landline phone service in certain circumstances. The Verizon Quantum TV set-top boxes contain chips that are unactivated but would serve as wireless IP set-tops and contain technology that could be used by the cellular network. Verizon claims this is about everything from customer satisfaction to environmental concerns. But the bottom line is simply busting the union and maximizing profits from the established LTE-X network.
Within the past few years, the issue of privacy in telecommunications has become a major controversy. Following the revelations by Edward Snowden and the WikiLeaks organization, the role of the providers in collaboration with the National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other law enforcement agencies has become a subject of debate. On August 28, Jenna McLaughlin of The Intercept published a story on the ruling by the US Court of Appeals regarding bulk metadata collection by the government which involved Verizon’s cooperation with the government.
My sources revealed to me that union members on the ground level of customer service have been able to access tools that collect metadata in ways that disturb them. There is one tool in particular, called the ‘spy tool’ or the ‘creepy tool’, that could be used in an improper fashion. Approval for its use is to be found in the small print of the Terms of Services agreement under the guise of ‘marketing’. The union does not have an official position on not using this tool, but some union members savvy of privacy ethics refuse to use it.
This tool is one which has the capability to allow the technicians to see how many television set-top boxes are within a residence. In many cases, the installation technician or customers will label the boxes based on the room, meaning therefore the customer service technician can see what someone watches in which rooms. The tool works as an aggregator and creates a profile of the customer, showing hours of television watched, what channels, how long on each channel, and other material. This sort of data collection and profiling is easy to gather and use in fashions that would be extremely dangerous. For example, if a stalker had access to this data, that person would be able to see what room their intended victim spends time in the most, at what hours, and, by understanding whether the person is watching a movie channel or one that is playing music, what level of attention is paid to the program. And in this era of cyber attacks and hacking, it is not a remote possibility that such instances could occur.
Some union members actively oppose using these tools because it causes technicians to ‘cross crafts’, something that leads to weakening of the union bargaining position. However, the obvious concerns over privacy and security are something that the union could address and take up as a cause, which is not without historical precedent.
An interesting example of unions taking up prominent civil liberties issues is the instance of their role in the racism struggles of African Americans. The American Federation of Labor collaborated with the government in the enforcement of segregation during the Gilded Age, leading to the formation of rival unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, both of which saw their ranks grow precisely because of their anti-racism positions. After the Red Scare and the merger of the AFL and the CIO, the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement were able to get key endorsements and support from labor. Indeed, a major backbone of the March on Washington was a large contingent of labor union members. Figures like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin had cut their teeth in the labor organization movement of the 1930’s and ’40’s. Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act in part because of progressive voices from within the remnants of the New Deal coalition pledged their political support in the 1964 election against Barry Goldwater.
Also in that case, there were both practical results for their union members, ending disparities in the lives of their members, and wider social results, collapsing the Jim Crow system. There are real issues to contend with, going up against the will of the military-police-industrial complex is fraught with major challenges. But after years of being championed by anti-union libertarians like Rand Paul, there would be a great level of support gained by labor if they took up the cause of privacy protection.
STANDING IN SOLIDARITY
There are things that both customers and non-customers can do to express solidarity. Those who are not paying a Verizon bill can reach out to their local IBEW and CWA branches and ask if they are accepting donations for support during this time. The unions know if they strike that this could be as brutal as the Caterpillar battle in the mid-1990’s. It is going to take old-fashioned solidarity to help them stay above water, but unions, as non-profit organizations, are allowed to accept donations.
If you are a member of a faith community, consider both offering prayers and raising funds for the union should they strike. If you are a community leader, express public solidarity. Write your local newspaper, post on social networks, make a public show of solidarity.
Customers can also do a great deal. Write Lowell McAdam and the Board of Directors and tell them to settle fairly with the unions or else you are canceling your subscriptions. If you make a call to Customer Service, ask if you are speaking to a union operator, and if not, ask to be transferred to one. There are already a variety of utilities that can take the place of Verizon cable services, such as Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube. Telephone and internet service are a bit more region-specific, but there is a way to make them know the customers stand with the workers.
This is a fight we all need to be concerned about. In the next term, the Supreme Court is hearing a case that was tailor-made to decimate the Abood decision and revoke the right of unions to collect dues in public-sector workplaces. The Verizon struggle, if lost by the workers, would have the same effect on private-sector unions. If you have any ability, whether it be through money, agitation, or just a FaceBook post, stand in solidarity with Verizon workers. Visit the Stand Up To Verizon website for more info. The stakes are too high to sit this one out.
This is an aggregated version of three stories that previously appeared on RIFuture.org.