After a two-week strike, workers at Verizon have gone back to work with only an agreement from management to continue bargaining. The 15-day walkout by 45,000 members of the CWA and IBEW at Verizon’s landline division on the East Coast was the largest strike in the United States since a brief strike of GM workers in 2007.
This dispute between workers and management is a familiar one for the labor movement: a highly profitable employer demanding massive concessions from workers, focusing on pension and health-care benefits. All too often union leaders have accepted the concessions without any struggle at all. The fact that Verizon workers fought back by striking, the vast size of the bargaining unit, and public familiarity with the company resulted in a groundswell of labor and community support, echoing the broad mobilization in Madison, Wis., last winter.
The sudden end of the strike, as the strike was building momentum, with no contract and not even agreement on any bargaining issues, has brought confusion and frustration for rank-and-file Verizon workers and their supporters.
Verizon is among the modern-day robber barons. In 2010 the company reported after-tax profits of over $10 billion as the company continued to expand in the fast growing wireless market. Despite this, the company not only paid no federal taxes in 2010 but received a $705 million refund!
In the context of massive budget cuts that workers are enduring on the pretext of the fake budget crisis, workers at Verizon and their allies are disgusted at the company’s demands for concessions from union workers. Verizon wants $1 billion in concessions from union employees by cutting health and retirement benefits and stripping work rules from the contract. The company is proposing that workers pay 25% of their health-care premiums, up from the current 0%.
The union workers at Verizon are almost entirely within the company’s landline division. The company’s rapidly growing wireless division has 80,000 employees, but only 75 are unionized. Today only 30% of Verizon workers are in a union. The company has continued to squeeze the landline division through outsourcing and downsizing as a means of weakening the unions’ ability to exert pressure on the company.
Efforts to organize the wireless division have failed, despite the unions’ winning a neutrality agreement with Verizon after a strike in 2000. To get strikers back to work, the company agreed to not interfere with organizing at wireless division operations, yet later completely violated the neutrality agreement. Verizon stalled implementation through lengthy arbitration hearings and closed facilities where CWA had formed organizing committees and moved the work to “right-to-work” states outside the jurisdiction of the agreement.
On Aug. 2 the unions’ leadership called a strike, stating that they could not accept the sweeping concessions sought by Verizon. But CWA president Larry Cohen said the purpose of the strike was merely to force Verizon to negotiate more seriously, not to win a new contract.
Despite the limited demands of the strike, Verizon workers and the labor movement mobilized to fight back against the company’s attacks. Picket lines were set up from Virginia to Massachusetts outside Verizon landline facilities, and blocking or slowing down scab operations. Verizon quickly went to court and successfully got injunctions to limit picketing. Nevertheless, landline operations were significantly disrupted, as the scabs were unable to maintain the workload of maintenance and service calls.
Trade unionists along the East Coast set up informational pickets outside Verizon Wireless retail stores to publicize the strike and build solidarity with the strikers. The store picketing also allowed trade unionists to engage the non-union workforce in wireless. The CWA and IBEW reported a flood of calls from wireless workers asking how to join the union.
Although the strike was building momentum, CWA and the IBEW called off the strike after receiving promises from management that they would began bargaining the key issues. Yet management has not conceded anything on the core issues. In fact, Marc Reed, the vice president of Human Resources at Verizon, told the press, “We remain committed to our objectives”—that is, busting the union.
Additionally, the unions agreed to not strike for 30 days and to suspend contractual overtime limits, allowing the company to catch up on its backlogged service work. The Verizon workers’ allies were told to suspend picketing outside the wireless stores. This effectively cut off most of the unions’ leverage in bargaining without gaining any real concessions from management.
It is likely that even if the strike had continued, management would not have moved in bargaining in the short term. Verizon was prepared to endure a long strike, especially since the strike was centered in its smaller and less profitable division. The IBEW workers also faced an additional challenge in that the union has no strike fund. And it is certainly no coincidence that the strike was called off right before workers were set to lose their company health insurance. All of these factors likely played a role in the union leaders’ ending of the strike.
Striking workers always face many challenges, and in this era of austerity with a weakened labor movement strikes are very difficult to win. Yet the cold truth for the labor movement is that strikes are the only way labor can effectively counter concessions. Verizon is clearly aiming for the jugular, and won’t back down unless forced by massive economic pressure—that is, a major shutdown of the company’s operations.
Despite the weakened state of the labor movement, it still has the ability to win strikes, if organized properly. The major labor federations and internationals should prioritize supporting the Verizon strike fund in order to alleviate the economic strain that workers face during a long strike. Unions could use the hundreds of millions earmarked for the budget-cutting Democrats for the 2012 election to support the striking Verizon workers.
Most critically, the unions could mobilize rank-and-file workers to form mass pickets to shut down scab operations, regardless of court injunctions, just as the pioneers of the modern labor movement did in the 1930s. The recent experiences of the mass protests in Madison, Wis., the UE factory occupation of Republic Doors and Windows, and the Verizon strike show that when workers fight back they draw support from broad layers of the working class, which can be used to overcome the various limitations of a particular union or bargaining unit.
While negotiations continue, the Verizon workers will continue their struggle. Some 80 workers, including a local union president, have been suspended for their actions on the picket lines, and a strong defense of these workers is critical for maintaining the battle with Verizon. Some workers have begun organizing “work-to-rule” campaigns (which necessarily mean slowdowns), and are discussing further actions they can take while back at work to maintain pressure on Verizon.
While the strike for now is over, all working people should be prepared to do whatever it takes to support the Verizon workers. A loss in this battle would be another sign for the bosses to continue and deepen their attacks on working people, while a win could be an inspiration for all workers to stand their ground and fight back against the bosses’ offensive.
> The article above was written by David Bernt, and first appeared in the September 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.