06.09.2016
  • North America
  • United States

The Fighting Tradition

The Verizon strike recaptured some of the uncompromising militancy of the early American labor movement.

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After decades of decline, the labor movement is flexing its muscles again. On April 13, approximately thirty-nine thousand Verizon workers represented by the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) walked off the job over a contract impasse. Six weeks later, the union called off the strike and claimed a victory.

Highlights of the new contract (yet to be ratified) include an increase in wages, preservation of job security provisions, an increase in call center jobs within the existing footprint, and a first-ever contract for Verizon Wireless retail workers at two locations in Massachusetts.

Radicals have argued for some time that if labor is going to rise again, it needs to abandon tepid tactics and re-embrace militant strikes.

A hundred years ago, radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) pioneered the disruptive tactics that the industrial unions of the 1930s would use to build the modern labor movement.

While the economic and political landscape has changed considerably since those early twentieth century strikes, Verizon workers have shown a similar ingenuity and tenaciousness — and provided a blueprint for others in the contemporary labor movement.

Wobblies knew that the best spot to hit the boss was his wallet. Manufacturing workers took money out of capital’s pocket by halting production or, in the case of mining industries, extraction.

The 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, often referred to as the Bread and Roses Strike, brought the worsted wool industry to a standstill. The following year, strikers tried to shut down silk production in Paterson, New Jersey. And in 1916, iron miners in northeast Minnesota refused to dig ore during the Mesabi Range strike.

“Look for your opponent’s vulnerabilities” — it could be a quote from the fierce and famous Wobbly organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. But in fact it’s Mike Gendron, vice president of CWA Local 1108, explaining his strike strategy.

In Verizon’s case, the exploitable weakness was not on the shop floor, but the trading floor. “Verizon is a Fortune 200 Company. Wall Street is their master,” Gendron told me. “You’re looking to impact the stock value, revenue. Highlight the fact that customer service is terrible because they’re hiring scabs from out of state. And the managers have no experience.”

Because of the dispersed nature of the retail industry, the CWA was also active at the point of sale. Strikers set up outside of Verizon Wireless stores across the Northeast — one of the union’s two “avenues of attack,” in the words of Local 1106’s Anthony Eramo.

Two strikers would stand in front of the doors passing out flyers, while others picketed. The aim was to get positive exposure, educate customers, and hamper sales of new lines, which reportedly declined 20–30 percent during the strike.

A byzantine set of federal rules governed their behavior. Whistling could be sporadic but not rhythmic. Air horns and megaphones were prohibited. Walking in front of driveways was allowed, although police officers unaware of the rules occasionally threatened strikers with arrest.

The other avenue of attack was the mobile picket. First used in 1912 by Lawrence strikers, workers in those days would encircle a factory or some other place of business and try to convince strikebreakers, verbally and sometimes physically, not to go to work.

Today, a mobile picket might traverse several miles on a highway, but the goal is the same. Just with more baroque restrictions.

As Eramo explains: “When a van leaves a facility to do our work we are by law allowed to follow that vehicle, as long as we remain fifteen feet away, with no more than five guys picketing one person.”

Verizon strikers taunted, screamed, and generally attempted to make the situation as uncomfortable as possible for scabs. Eramo says the surveillance and heckling were very effective, “and kind of intimidating.”

When tempers flared, the picket turned into a contest between dueling cameras. Scabs tried to catch strikers making threats or engaging in other prohibited behaviors (which could cost them their jobs when the strike was over), and strikers recorded their own video for proof of innocence.

Wobblies knew that a strike was more likely to endure and succeed when strikers remained engaged. Picketers in Lawrence and Paterson sung their hearts out. They marched in strike parades and processed for May Day.

Led by Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca, whose flair for the dramatic is hard to exaggerate, they held public funerals (both mock and genuine) for fallen comrades.

Such tactics effectively transformed the strike into a form of political theater. In the case of Paterson, strikers actually reenacted their struggle as a pageant in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

The CWA showed a similar penchant for performance. Pennsylvania strikers staged a funeral procession for the “corporate pig” (complete with a casket) in a Verizon retail parking lot that would have had Tresca cheering.

But the most raucous actions were reserved for hotels that put up strikebreakers — strikers harbored particular disdain for scabs who were willing to travel to take their jobs. Hundreds gathered at 5 AM to ring cowbells, blow whistles, bellow, and jeer until police arrived with special response teams.

Technically a form of third-party picketing, the tactic is illegal. It was also very popular. And it proved successful. At least one Manhattan hotel kicked out strikebreakers that were staying there.

Pivoting from hotels and retail stores, ten CWA members attended the annual Verizon shareholders meeting in Albuquerque to pressure the company. Their presence was buttressed by members of Citizen Action and the Working Families Party, who engaged in civil disobedience before the meeting.

Once inside, all ten CWA members questioned the board about astronomical executive compensation and other issues on the ballot.

Gendron asked Verizon about its plans for green initiatives and requested more company transparency regarding money donated to Super PACs.

Gendron and the other CWA attendees did not expect to change company policy. For them, going to the meeting was a matter of standing up and being heard by the bigwigs.

In doing so, they had to contend with a media often hostile to strikers. The IWW addressed that problem by publishing its own newspapers, Solidarity and The Industrial Worker.

In 1920, left-wing labor advocates established the Federated Press news service to provide daily content to labor and left newspapers around the country.

For their part, striking Verizon workers knew they couldn’t possibly outmaneuver or outspend the telecommunications giant for television or print coverage.

So they turned to social media, posting photos and videos of various mobilization activities, protests against CEO Lowell McAdam, and declarations of support from municipal governments.

Coverage of the Verizon strike was minimal (if largely even-handed) in mainstream news outlets. Consequently, most Americans likely only had a foggy idea of the picket lines stretching across the Northeast.

Even news of the settlement was drowned out by accounts of violence at a Trump rally and the growing brouhaha over Hillary Clinton’s email account. Next time around, the union is going to have to reach beyond Facebook and Twitter if it wants to generate public sympathy and support.

Fortunately, they’ll have a nascent international base to draw on.

During the strike, in a remarkable demonstration of transnational solidarity, the union sent a handful of rank-and-filers to a call center in Quezon City, Philippines, where they marched with workers (and were threatened with bodily harm by local law enforcement).

Their Filipino comrades, in turn, channeled reports about Verizon’s declining profits and increasing customer dissatisfaction to the CWA’s national office. This kind of internationalist solidarity, second nature to early generations of labor radicals, needs to be strengthened for future fights.

The Wobblies also knew that labor’s concerns didn’t stop at the workplace. In the early twentieth century, IWW radicals realized that limitations on political speech hampered their organizing efforts.

So between 1909 and 1916, they spearheaded a series of free speech fights in cities around the country. The union’s stand sparked a national conversation about the meaning of the First Amendment and inspired founders of the ACLU.

In 2016, climate change is arguably the most pressing issue outside of bread-and-butter concerns. Gendron’s question at the shareholders’ meeting about green initiatives suggests the CWA is interested in leveraging its power for environmental justice.

Going forward, if it’s able to meld an expansive progressive vision with dogged, militant tactics, the CWA will continue to be a model for the rest of the labor movement.

On the picket line, though, workers were grappling with more immediate concerns.

As the strike was entering its seventh week, Gendron prepared to grind it out. “When you have a campaign like this one there’s no silver bullet, no stake in the heart, it’s death by a thousand cuts. You’re up against real powerful forces here.”

When I asked him whether the union would outlast CEO Lowell McAdam, his response was unequivocal. “We’re all in, and we’re not going away. We have no other choice. The terms they want us to exist under will ruin us, and we’re not going to let that happen.”

Like striking mill workers in Lawrence, Paterson, and the Mesabi Range a century before them, the CWA realized it had more to gain than to lose from militant struggle. Gendron insisted: “We’re a strong and militant union. I would fight this to the very end.”

Workers I met on the picket line shared his determination. According to one member of Local 1104, “Rich people are not benevolent. You have to force them to give you what you’ve earned.”

Or, as the mill workers of Lawrence chanted as they walked defiantly out of the factories over a hundred years ago, “Better to starve fighting than to starve working!”