On June 1, Verizon wireline workers returned to work after a forty-nine-day strike.
Well, some of them did. Others showed up wearing their union’s signature red shirts instead of Verizon shirts and, within an hour or two, walked right back out.
“I got a message from a friend in Holbrook in Suffolk County. He told me the whole garage had walked out,” says a shop steward from New York. “The manager had said, no shirts no pay. He tried to send the chief home, and so the whole garage walked out. I immediately texted around to see if similar situations had happened. Then I heard garages at Newburgh, Suffolk, and other places had walked.” Workers at these garages had also shown up donning their Communication Workers of America shirts.
Events in the New York steward’s garage quickly took a similar turn. “All of a sudden I hear our first level foreman had come down and said ‘zero tolerance, no shirts no shoes no pay.’ As soon as I heard that I started telling guys to take their [union] shirts off and that we’re all walking out. So everybody walked out.”
They returned the next day wearing their Verizon gear, but only after more talks with management and a promise to treat workers respectfully.
Back to Work?
It might seem strange for a strike to end with another walkout, especially over something as trivial as a shirt. After all, during the strike, scabs frequently wore whatever they pleased.
But Verizon workers’ decision to wear their CWA red was no empty gesture. The shirts are one of the most visible and enduring symbols of their union — a union that had just pulled off its most militant and successful strike in more than two decades.
The color red memorializes a member killed by a Verizon manager who plowed his car into a picket line during the union’s 1989 strike. For years Verizon workers have worn the shirt on Thursdays to reinforce their member-driven union culture.
So when managers showed up the first day back, with little acknowledgement that there had been a strike, delivering the same old message of work discipline, many workers bridled.
To them, it looked like Verizon was trying to reestablish the same old despotic workplace, in which workers were treated like just another factor of production.
For instance, during the strike, two major demands were rejecting Verizon’s new desire to send employees out of state for up to two months at a time and eliminating the highly punitive Quality Assessment Review, a disciplinary proceeding whose primary purpose seemed to be to generate fear and uncertainty among workers.
Workers won on both counts, bucking a long-standing trend. “How often does the question of performance review become a collective bargaining question in a strike? That flies in the face of the whole postwar labor movement tendency to give up control over the shop floor,” observes Bob Master, a CWA political director.
If anything, Verizon’s attempt to claw back shop-floor control by raising a stink over workers’ shirts shows how much the company lost in the strike.
In addition to the victories on disciplinary proceedings and out-of-state work, Verizon workers secured major pay raises, a reduction in call-center outsourcing, the creation of 1,500 new union jobs, the preservation of pension benefits, and a new contract for Verizon Wireless workers.
But that’s not all. They also won greater freedom and authority on the job. As one technician puts it, “They thought they could put the pressure on us and we would crack. I think it has had the opposite effect.”
There’s now a greater willingness to resist pressure not just during contract negotiations but on the job. “I’m documenting everything,” says one shop steward from Local 1101, who plans on bringing the documentation to managers who have promised new grievance procedures. “The grievance procedure is the only way to really control the company,” he says.
The steward’s ability to do so rests on the strike’s transformative power. It gave workers a sense of their own capacity. And it reminded them that the most effective way to improve their individual lives is to resist collectively.
“Now you have a whole workforce that has extensive strike experience. We know what it takes. We’ve been through it. We’re the new battle-tested union members,” the steward says.
The steward’s sentiment was widely shared among those who spoke with me. The walkout “took any fear that people had about striking, it really got rid of that,” says a Verizon technician with sixteen years experience. “You used to hear a lot of people say we need other tactics, the old things don’t work. But now it’s settled that a strike works.”
This strike certainly worked. According to initial reports, the Verizon walkout depressed sales by 20 to 25 percent and forced some stores to lower performance quotas just so they could keep paying retail employees.
Filipino call-center workers said 50 percent of their calls were customers complaining about bad FIOS installations. Verizon had to cancel all new installations to focus on service and repair — and still couldn’t meet customer needs.
Investors took note, and Verizon’s stock price dropped nearly ten percent over the course of the strike.
To Win a Strike
While solidarity was the key to winning the strike, there were other factors that benefited the Verizon workers.
One was the political context. The CWA’s decision to endorse Bernie Sanders paid major dividends when the Vermont senator showed up on a Verizon picket line the first week of the walkout, invited strikers to the front row of one of his New York primary rallies, and then went on national television to denounce Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam.
As Master, the political director, joked to me, “remind us never to go on strike again unless it’s a week before a contested New York primary when a socialist is running for president.”
But while Sanders helped give the strike a national profile, it was the rank-and-file who made the real sacrifices, standing on pickets for hours, then days, then weeks.
One of the reasons Verizon workers were able to hold out for well over a month (including more than four weeks without health insurance) was their deep skill set. Their expertise in a complex new technology (FIOS) made it difficult for Verizon to replace them with managers and scabs during the strike.
The company tried, of course. But the results weren’t pretty. After a decades-long strategy of hiring low-level managers off the street rather than promoting from within, the company was left with no one to do the job of striking technicians.
The shift to hiring outside its ranks is part of a wider managerial restructuring at Verizon. The result has been a more rigid and hierarchical system where low-level managers have less understanding of the work and workers, and live in constant fear of losing their jobs if they don’t carry out the sometimes-impossible directives of upper-level bosses.
“It started with Bell Atlantic changing to Verizon. It was a new management from the South, people talked about the southern way of running a company,” explains one Verizon tech. “Verizon was much more top down. Lower-level managers lost their fixed pension benefits, they lost a lot of power, they had increased workload. They are scared for their jobs all the time, which makes them terrorize their workforce.”
This newfound demand for hard-nosed managers may explain why Verizon has looked to the military, among other places, to fill new supervisory positions.
“There are teams within our HR department that are solely focused on recruiting veterans,” Ray McConville, a Verizon spokesman, told me.
We try to hire as many of them as we can. In the last few years we have certainly formalized the process a lot more, of having an actual, active program aimed at recruiting and retention of veterans. I would say we’ve been one of the earliest adopters of that. A lot of major corporations look to do that now and talk a lot about that now. We’ve been doing it longer than most.
McConville pointed me to a website that Verizon has set up in which a veteran can enter all of his or her military experience and the website will display the jobs at Verizon for which the veteran is qualified.
Verizon’s motivation is profits, not patriotism. As the spokesman made clear, “When it gets reported on, people talk about recruiting veterans because we owe it to them. But we look at it as the positive impact it has on the business.”
Whatever skills Verizon has found in these recruits, repairing FIOS and other wireline services is not one of them. The same goes for all the non-veteran managers, not to mention scabs.
Verizon only trained replacements for five days, while normal FIOS training involves three weeks of school, two weeks of ride-alongs, and even then the newly trained are much slower than experienced technicians.
As the Verizon worker with sixteen years of experience said to me, “They lost money because management thinks they are gods among men. They think we’re worthless, and then it turns out our job is hard. Even the managers couldn’t do it, and they stopped trying to do installations because it took four days.”
No Substitute for Mobilization
But even with the relative advantages of enjoying a national profile and being hard to replace, the strike was still a huge risk. The willingness to take a bet on collective power, and stay committed for seven weeks, did not appear out of the blue. It was, at least in part, a reflection of the union’s commitment to educating and engaging its members.
“We have had a culture in CWA that we label mobilization,” Master says. “You build out this internal structure and strive for a one-to-ten ratio for mobilizers to members. You put the mobilizers and stewards through training, develop a culture of collective action, starting with simple things like wearing red.”
This isn’t just a way for the union to organize its members but a means for the rank-and-file to control the direction of the union.
The main reason Quality Assessment Reviews were part of the contract negotiations was that leadership had direct channels to the rank-and-file and knew what members’ day-to-day lives were like. The CWA endorsed Sanders because its president, Chris Shelton, decided to poll its members.
These are the lessons we should take away from the Verizon strike: the importance of the CWA’s democratic culture, its awareness of its own collective power. There is just no substitute for a union that relies on the activity and strength of its own members, not just when it’s time to strike but in the day-to-day business of the union.
Even in labor markets where employees are more easily replaced, the power of work stoppages and sustained, militant pickets to inflict real economic damage is significant.
Especially when they can bring in wider layers of society. In the Verizon strike, Filipino call-center workers refused to take overtime hours and increased their call handling time; supporters worked with CWA activists to picket a hundred stores beyond the three hundred that strikers covered; hotel workers supported picketers by pressuring hotels to stop serving scabs; various municipalities canceled contracts with Verizon.
This wasn’t just solidarity in the sense of broadly sympathizing with the plight of others. It was a touch of the standard, labor movement solidarity, in which an injury to one is an injury to all.
These wider acts of support, undertaken in concert with a union that boasts an active and educated rank-and-file, highlight the potential of class power.
The Struggle Continues
The strike may be over, but as the June 1 walkout demonstrates, the struggle continues.
The new contract expires in 2019, and because the agreement (like nearly all union contracts today) carries a no-strike clause, Verizon has plenty of time to plan how it will break the next strike.
And there will be plenty of reason to strike. Vacation and sick days are controlled by a central computer, Verizon can still force overtime and weekend work, the shape of the new disciplinary regime is unclear, employee medical contributions have increased, and managerial culture can always be improved.
Organizing Verizon Wireless is the other pressing issue going forward. Verizon’s wireless division is much larger than wireline and considerably more profitable.
One of the strike’s major achievements was forcing Verizon to sign a contract with workers at several stores that had been organized since 2014, but with whom Verizon had refused to negotiate.
While the new contract only covers about sixty-five wireless employees out of thousands, simply breaking into the wireless side was important.
Unionized wireless workers now have something they can bring to the unorganized, including job protections, scheduling control, a better grievance procedure, and some pay guarantees.
One shop steward is hopeful: “Just like the company gets a foot in the door to get us to pay medical, this is our foot in the door to get wireless unionized.”
Organizing the wireless side won’t be easy. Companies regularly threaten or fire rank-and-file organizers because it is far cheaper to accept the costs of violating labor law than to permit employees to organize.
To win over wireless workers, Verizon wireline workers will have to impart their post-strike sense of confidence. They will also need to continue to mobilize public support for job actions.
This is where the Left can and should play a role. Solidarity means standing with those who want to win a measure of freedom for themselves. That, in a limited but important way, is what was at issue in the recent strike — and what workers will continue struggling to win.