Unions End the Biggest Strike in Years—but the Battle for Verizon Workers Continues

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The Nation

Unions End the Biggest Strike in Years—but the Battle for Verizon Workers Continues

The nation’s longest and largest strike in the age of austerity ended this weekend. But the labor standoff continues as 45,000 Verizon landline technicians and customer service employees on the East Coast will return to work on Tuesday without a new contract.

The Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), representing thousands of workers striking the nation’s largest wireless carrier, announced an end to the biggest walkout in recent labor history and the resumption of contract negotiations. However, at the present time, this is not a victory for the workers by any means.

After two dynamic, energetic weeks of walking picket lines and receiving no paychecks, Verizon workers are returning to work under the previous contract while revived negotiations with an obstinate standard-bearer of corporate greed make the prospect of a prolonged contract battle almost certain. Union leaders say they decided to end the strike after the company agreed to bargain seriously on contentious issues that Verizon had refused to budge on until now.

Larry Cohen, president of CWA, said the unions and the company had reached a deal “to restructure bargaining in a way that represents progress for everyone.” But the details of that agreement remain vague.

Meanwhile, Verizon says that the major issues remain on the table, including changes to health benefits, job security and outsourcing. A company spokesperson told the New York Times on Saturday, “The company hasn’t conceded any of its proposals.”

So workers will return to their jobs on Tuesday without having won anything concrete from the company. If anything, in addition to two week’s pay, workers have lost considerable leverage as union leaders freed the telecom giant from the pressure of a massive work stoppage that was causing major service delays and damaging the company’s image.

The latest deal has left many rank-and-file workers upset and worried that the likelihood of beating back concessions demanded by the company are now severely diminished.

“This agreement is a missed opportunity,” said a CWA Local 1106 member in New York. “We’re going back to work with only a structure for negotiations. We're going back with nothing.” She added that the company is likely to impose twelve-hour workdays so union workers could correct the errors committed by scab technicians during the strike.

It is difficult to imagine favorable negotiations will occur following the bitter fighting of the last two weeks that saw the company launching an ugly propaganda campaign, running newspaper and radio ads that depicted the workers as greedy and accused them of sabotaging equipment. Verizon also won injunctions against pickets in four states and at least two dozen workers were reportedly injured by scab trucks.

On the other side of the picket line, workers used traditional pickets at workplaces, in addition to mobile pickets that followed scab trucks to jobsites. Strikers also relied heavily on picketing outside of Verizon Wireless retail stores in an attempt to turn away customers and hit Verizon’s largest source of profit.

But from the beginning, union leaders said that the strike was in response to Verizon’s intractable position in negotiations in which the company was insisting on a list of up to 100 concessionary proposals and not taking the unions seriously. Leaders like Cohen said the walkout would end as soon as Verizon agreed to resume bargaining in good faith. Many workers were critical of this stance, arguing that it would be strategically unwise to return to work without a new contract.

At a time of harsh austerity, high unemployment and a recession that never ended for most people, workers on the picket line at Verizon pointed to the company’s flagrant greed and union-busting. While it made $10 billion in profits last year and paid its top five executives $258 million over the last four years, Verizon hasn’t paid a dime in federal income taxes in two years. In fact, it received a $1.3 billion federal tax rebate for 2010.

Despite its success, the company has cried poverty and is seeking big concessions from workers, including massive cuts to health benefits, pensions, job security protections and sick days. Striking workers had the advantage of wide public support—including solidarity pickets far beyond the East Coast—as they highlighted these facts about Verizon’s hypocrisy and anti-worker attacks. Having ended the strike prematurely, however, many workers feel union leaders have squandered that crucial advantage.

Cohen admitted on Saturday that the agreement is not a victory but rather a sign of progress in the workers’ struggle with management. For many workers though, this strike was about winning, not extracting unclear promises about fair bargaining.

Although some history has been made with the first major strike in this era of economic turmoil, an extraordinary opportunity to turn the tide in the national war on workers may have just been dropped.

Brian Tierney

Brian Tierney is a freelance labor journalist in Washington, DC. Read more of his work at Subterranean Dispatches, where this article first appeared.

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