06.07.2016
  • North America
  • United States

Why They Won

The Verizon workers' campaign for union democracy set the stage for a successful strike.

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It’s a strike outcome that’s all too rare these days: a corporate powerhouse forced to drop sweeping union-busting demands by a solid strike of tens of thousands of workers with widespread public support.

The question now is whether organized labor will follow the Verizon workers’ example and once again make the strike a weapon against the employers’ relentless attacks.

The tentative agreement — between thirty-nine thousand members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) on one side and Verizon on the other — ended a forty-five-day strike, with the union successfully holding the line against many of the company’s harshest demands.

Full details of the agreement are still emerging, but among the highlights, workers will get a 10.5 percent raise over four years — a modest gain but noteworthy at a time when wage growth is stagnant across the US.

The unions beat back the company’s demand to be able to send workers away from their home cities to work anywhere in the Verizon system for weeks at a time. The company agreed to make 1,500 new hires — most of them call-center workers — which would counter the trend towards outsourcing.

And Verizon caved to the demand of sixty-five Verizon unionized retail store workers for a first contract. The number of new CWA members is small, but this is an important foothold in Verizon’s massive wireless operation, which is almost entirely non-union.

Another big win for tech workers in New York City in particular was the abandonment of the hated Quality Assurance Review (QAR), a productivity program that in reality was a disciplinary tool that led to unpaid suspensions, often thirty days long.

This is a rare gain for blue-collar union employees across the US, who have had their jobs made increasingly miserable by similar management schemes.

Management also dropped a number of other aggressive demands, such as a cap on pension credits at thirty years and measures intended to strengthen management’s hand and harass high-seniority workers into early retirement.

The proposed deal, which will now go to all locals for a ratification vote by June 17, does contain important downsides. According to the contract summary released by the CWA, workers will have to pay significantly more in health care costs, both in insurance premiums and deductibles.

This wasn’t necessarily a surprise to workers, since union negotiators had already proposed $200 million in health cost “savings” earlier in talks. The health care costs will eat into the pay hike, especially for union members paying for family coverage.

Unfortunately, the unions didn’t attempt to win back the historic concession made during the 2011–12 fight that compelled workers to pay a share of health care premiums for the first time.

Also, the 1,500 new hires promised by the company will apparently be on the lower tier of benefits and weaker job security negotiated under previous union contracts.

Plus, the company will likely keep offering annual early retirement packages to speed the transition to a lower-paid, less secure and smaller unionized workforce. To that end, a Verizon spokesperson highlighted a concession that allows the company to streamline the routing of customer calls, rather than the current practice of answering most calls in the state where they originate.

Still, on balance, Verizon workers got more than they gave. And there is a larger victory here: By forcing the company to drop its central demands, Verizon strikers showed that workers have the collective power to push back against corporate America — and win.

Transformative Power

Given organized labor’s recent setbacks and disasters, how did the CWA and IBEW pull off a victory at Verizon?

It isn’t because the CWA — the dominant union at Verizon — is decidedly more militant. It has followed most of the policies of other big unions that have failed to reverse labor’s decline.

Like the United Steelworkers, for example, the CWA responded to the technological transformation of its industry by bowing to concessions for the shrinking workforce at still-unionized employers while seeking mergers with smaller unions to keep up overall membership numbers.

Today, outside of its traditional telecom sector, the CWA represents factory workers, newspaper reporters, flight attendants, public employees, and more.

Notably, however, the CWA did break from labor leaders’ unquestioning support for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party establishment’s choice for a presidential nominee, and instead backed Bernie Sanders’s left-wing campaign.

Having encouraged members to be active in the Sanders campaign and support his anti-corporate themes, the CWA leadership prepared the ground politically for taking on the bosses.

The chaotic presidential election campaign this year shaped the terrain of the struggle in other ways as well. In May, Labor Secretary Tom Perez — angling for Hillary Clinton’s shortlist of potential vice presidential running mates — upped pressure on Verizon to settle the strike now rather than let it drag out through the summer.

But these factors were secondary to the long, fighting tradition of Verizon workers that came to the fore when the sheer bitterness of rank-and-file union members was unleashed on April 13.

Though preparation for the strike was uneven, union members turned out in force for picketing and protests. The signature red shirts of strikers became a daily sight in the East Coast region, especially in big cities like New York.

The reform leadership of CWA Local 1101 in Manhattan was quick to tap the energy, organizing picket lines outside hotels where the company was housing scabs recruited to replace union workers.

That was representative, according to rank-and-file members, of a greater openness among union leaders to welcoming the initiative of members — which in turn may have emboldened them at the bargaining table.

Strikers would gather before the sun rose for the scabs’ “wake-up call” — and then pursued them back to their home-away-from-home late into the night. Unionized hotel workers honored picket lines, and management at several hotels expelled the scabs rather than lose other guests.

A judge’s injunction in mid-May curtailed the hotel pickets, but the company had already suffered another black eye.

Union members, backed up by supporters inside and outside the Verizon region, organized noisy protests at Verizon Wireless stores — many a customer turned away at the sight of a picket line.

Probably most important of all, the junior managers and scabs recruited by the company simply couldn’t replace the thirty-nine thousand trained union workers. Installation of Verizon’s critical FiOS network ground to a halt.

And, as dozens of video clips uploaded to the Internet attested, the scabs failed miserably — and sometimes dangerously — at doing union work.

At heart, this was an illustration of the essential power of the strike weapon — when workers withhold their labor, the employers can’t make their profits. As a CWA shop steward said in an interview with Socialist Worker:

[A] lot of the important things that happened because of the strike won’t appear in the contract language, because they happened to the strikers themselves. For a section of the membership, it was a transformative experience where we really felt our power. And it was obvious that this came from our personal participation and the widespread popular support for the strike.

Anti-Concessions, Pro-Democracy

The militancy and mobilization of rank-and-file union members during the strike harkens back to an older tradition.

In 1989 — during a decade when organized labor was taking a beating — a bitter strike at New York Telephone, a Verizon predecessor, ended in a union victory against health care concessions.

The high point of the struggle was an angry mass rally on Wall Street following the death of striker Gerry Horgan, who was run over by a scab in the New York City suburbs.

In 1998, workers hit the picket lines once again, taking on Bell Atlantic, by then a regional company. Two years later, the re-branding of Bell Atlantic as Verizon was upstaged by another strike.

In both cases, workers didn’t mobilize large-scale picketing that could have stopped management and strikebreakers from crossing lines. Even so, scab operations were weak, and the bosses threw in the towel on their key demands.

But for the past fifteen years, the CWA’s numbers and strength at Verizon atrophied, particularly as the technological change from copper wires to fiber optics made it easier for Verizon to automate and eliminate union jobs.

The CWA was unable to make headway organizing wireless operations despite winning a contractual right to do so years ago. Union leaders also campaigned hard for the passage of a concessionary contract in 2003 that introduced a lower-tier classification for union members who don’t have the same job security as veteran workers.

Following that contract, the CWA was on the defensive as Verizon executives proceeded with plans to build a nonunion workforce in wireless.

The union leadership’s failures led to notable dissension in the rank-and-file — not only at Verizon, but at AT&T, where in 2009, the CWA made separate, concessions-filled deals for one hundred thousand workers in regional contracts, rather than use their leverage for a united struggle.

In 2011, as CWA-IBEW negotiations with Verizon were heating up, CWA members opposed to concessions backed Local 1400 President Don Trementozzi in a vigorous campaign for the number-two position in the union on a platform of opposing concessions and organizing non-union workers.

Trementozzi got 25 percent of the vote at the union’s July 2011 convention.

A few weeks later, the CWA called a strike at Verizon — but suddenly called it off after two weeks without a contract. When the deal was finally reached many months later, it included the first-ever unionized worker contributions to health care premiums.

The bungled strike and contract campaign set the stage for an opposition to win office in CWA Local 1101 in Manhattan on an anti-concessions, pro-democracy platform. It was the only CWA local to officially oppose the eventual deal.

In 2015, a new national union president, Chris Shelton, was elected. It was in an environment of membership discontent that Shelton gave an acceptance speech as the new CWA president that denounced “Wall Street’s deregulated, anti-union, trickle-down, one percent economics” and vowed to fight back.

So there was some reason to believe that Shelton — who had opposed the return to work with no contract at Verizon in 2011 — would match his fighting talk with action as contract talks began last year.

For their part, Verizon negotiators were confident they could have their way with the CWA and the IBEW — the business publication Crain’s claimed the unions were “in the weakest position they’ve ever been” as contract talks began a year ago.

When the company continued to press for union-busting demands like the months-long out-of-state transfers, Shelton understood that members would rebel over a concessionary deal while the company was massively profitable.

Bitterness at increased workloads and ever-present surveillance and harassment by management ran at a fever pitch. So the CWA called the strike.

One Day Stronger

Verizon’s aggressive strategy isn’t new. It’s straight out of corporate America’s anti-labor playbook that has been in place since the 1980s, as companies used industrial restructuring, new technology, and a raft of anti-union laws to grind down workers’ power and organization.

With few exceptions, labor leaders, confronted with risking the unions’ viability in an all-out fight with the bosses, conceded to even profitable employers’ demands for givebacks.

Their aim has been to protect their shrinking institutions — and their own power within the bureaucracy — while hoping to somehow revive the old days of “big labor” and partnership with employers with the help of Democratic Party politicians.

But the employers aren’t interested in “partnership,” and the Democrats are unwilling to cross corporate America. Concessions have only led to more concessions and a decline in the percentage of workers in unions from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 10.1 percent in 2015.

In the private sector, the percentage is just 6.7 percent.

The shrinking percentage of workers in unions has, in turn, led to a dramatic decline in strikes. There were just twelve strikes or lockouts involving one thousand or more workers in 2015, compared to 424 in 1974, for example.

The fact that the CWA leadership called the strike in April, then, was a testament to the combativeness of union members at Verizon, as well as a wider dissatisfaction in the working class. Nevertheless, preparations for this battle weren’t as effective as they should have been.

Although CWA officials warned in March that a strike was likely, organizing in workplaces was uneven at best. For example, members in some areas were refusing overtime for several weeks before the strike, but this wasn’t generalized.

Worse still, the union went into negotiations accepting concessions from the start, especially those established in recent contract rounds — for example, the proposal for $200 million in health care cost savings that ended up as the basis of a greatly increased contribution from union members for health care.

As in previous strikes, CWA members were ready to “follow the work” during the strike with mobile picketing. But the union hasn’t mounted a strategy aimed at bigger confrontations at strategic worksites that could try to shut down Verizon’s operations, rather than delay work at decentralized locations.

In a new approach for this sector of organized labor, the unions emphasized working with allies toward building a social movement in support of strikers — using the New York and Pennsylvania Democratic primary elections to get media coverage and tie Verizon to the anti-boss sentiment expressed in the Sanders campaign.

The union did succeed in damaging Verizon’s brand. The unions’ May 5 day of action mobilized strikers and supporters for more than four hundred pickets and actions at Verizon Wireless stores and other sites.

The key was widespread support for the strike. Residential customers and government bodies cancelled Verizon orders to show their solidarity with the strikers. There was also the possibility that Verizon would have to pay unemployment benefits to strikers — another financial incentive to settle.

In the end, Verizon — having lost the public relations war and faced with the reality that its scab operation wasn’t doing the job — folded on its key demands.

But the outcome, while a victory for strikers, leaves important questions unanswered. Like what it will take to confront Verizon’s scabbing operation if it doesn’t fail because of management and scab incompetence.

The CWA and IBEW vowed to last “one day longer” than the company, and they succeeded in the circumstances of this strike.

But that slogan has failed the test as a strategy in many labor battles over the last three decades, where company bosses determined to decisively weaken unions waited out striking and locked-out workers until they were financially drained and personally devastated.

What’s needed is a combination of the Verizon’s strike’s activism and energy with a return to labor’s older traditions of taking a stand at the point of production — blocking scabs to put the pressure on employers to settle.

That, too, is a risky strategy, given the fines and jail time that can come down on a militant union. But that militancy is a part of the CWA’s tradition that was revived in this battle — and it’s one that will need to be rebuilt at Verizon and beyond.

What won the Verizon strike wasn’t just good public relations, community allies, or the intervention of politicians and the federal government, but more centrally the activism and determination of workers during more than six weeks on the picket line.

If Verizon workers deem this contract to be, on balance, a victory and ratify it, the outcome can be the beginning of a revival of activism in the CWA. And the strike can become an important lesson for a labor movement that has been starved of victories for far too long.