The picket lines are up. This past weekend 45,000 Verizon workers on the East Coast, represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), went on strike. The cause of the strike was the company's attempts to win massive concessions from the unions. Verizon argued that the employees should give up gains they had won over many years of struggle and negotiation in previous contract fights.
As the Wall Street Journalput it, "Verizon Communications Inc. is seeking some of the biggest concessions in years from its unions." Demands include the weakening of health-care benefits, cuts in pensions, reduced job security, and elimination of paid holidays such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This despite the fact that the company reported billions in profit last year, and that, in the words of New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse, "Verizon's top five executives received a total of $258 million in compensation, including stock options, over the last four years." The unions argue that Verizon has made some $20 billion in profit in the same time period, and Citizens for Tax Justice has pointed out that the company has done so while paying little to nothing in corporate income taxes.
Without a doubt, this is a conflict of national significance. As Bob Master, CWA District 1 legislative and political director, explained Wednesday in a conference call with supporters,
This is an enormously profitable company, which we believe is trying to take advantage of an anti-union environment and, in a sense, to replicate at a giant private-sector corporation what the governors of Ohio, New Jersey, and Wisconsin have been trying to do to the public sector. Our members feel very strongly that we need to draw a line here.
The parallel to Wisconsin is apt for several reasons. First, like the Republican elected officials in their attacks on unionized schoolteachers and other public employees, Verizon is taking aim at one of the last bastions of the American middle class. As a main strategy in its public relations, the company is trying to stoke resentment about the fact that the CWA and IBEW workers actually have living-wage jobs. It is hoping that "I don't have a pension, why should they" logic will carry the day.
Accordingly, on Wednesday Verizon took out a full-page ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer suggesting that a typical employee makes $80,600 in annual pay and $42,000 in benefits. The union disputes this claim, contending that salaries are generally in the $60,000 to $77,000 range, and that benefits are less costly than the company would suggest. But, regardless, the debate over numbers misses some critical questions: What's wrong with workers sharing in the profits of a healthy corporation? Isn't that the way our economy is supposed to work?
(On a side note, it's always a treat when companies plead poverty at the negotiating table and then turn around and spend big bucks on media spots, anti-union consultants, and pricey PR firms--but that's another story.)
The fate of 45,000 middle-class jobs is a big deal for all of America. Last month, the entire U.S. economy had a net gain of only 117,000 jobs. Not only is that for the whole country, it represents a pretty decent month given the numbers from the past year. Furthermore, almost all of the new jobs now being created are low-wage. Given these realities--and the fact that concentrating all wealth in the hands of the rich is a very bad strategy for creating the kind of demand the economy needs to rebound--what happens to the Verizon workers is a matter of broad public concern.
Bob Master is right that Verizon's aggressive bargaining stance, like Governor Scott Walker's public-sector power grab, is the product of a political climate in which corporate interests feel they can do whatever they want to working people, and employees will have no recourse. The Verizon strike is unfortunately akin to Wisconsin in that it is a defensive battle--an effort to stop tragic rollbacks in previously established standards of fair employment.
The background for the contract dispute is that Verizon is now making most of its profits from its wireless services. While a small number of wireless technicians are involved in the strike, that part of the company is mostly non-union. In an ideal world, CWA and IBEW would be able to "bargain to organize," balancing any concessions at the negotiating table for current union members with agreements that the company will remain truly neutral and allow workers at Verizon Wireless to make their own decision about whether or not to unionize. But this is not an ideal world. Like in Wisconsin, labor and its allies face a difficult fight merely to stave off the worst of a rabidly anti-union assault.
That said, there is a case for hope. The mass protests in Madison earlier this year gave some cause for optimism that a new type of energetic, broad-based, community-labor mobilization might become a lasting force in that state's politics--and become a model for movements in other parts of the country. Wisconsinites' success this week in recalling some Republican State Senators (although not as many as hoped) suggested that the struggle will be a long one, but that progressive efforts could have some real legs.
As for the strike, all those who have been wondering when working America will be fed up enough to finally stand up and fight should not sit this one out. If the Verizon strike becomes a rallying point in this country for a movement against runaway corporate power and for a fairer economy, it could have much broader implications than what contract terms are ultimately hammered out for those now walking the picket lines. That these workers are not rolling over in the face of company insistence on concessions is important and courageous. And they deserve widespread support.
Those on the East Coast can find a picket line to visit here.
Supporters all over the country will soon be able to "adopt a Verizon Wireless store" in their area and help to organize pickets at that location.
Finally, without even leaving your computer, you can sign the petition in support of the 45,000 CWA and IBEW workers on strike.