By MIKE PINHO and BILL ONASCH
On April 13, nearly 40,000 Verizon workers on the East Coast, from Maine to Virginia, walked off the job. In the largest U.S. strike in five years, workers from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) walked out in response to the concessions that telecom giant Verizon has been demanding.
Workers have been without a contract for the past 11 months. The unions offered some concessions on health-care costs, but the company wasn’t appeased, still not budging on numerous drastic take-aways.
Verizon is demanding cuts to workers’ health care, freezing pension benefits at 30 years, and outsourcing call-center jobs to non-union, low-wage places such as Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines. The company is also seeking the ability to send field techs out of their home states for up to two months at a time. This would place additional strain on families who are already feeling the daily pressures of life in capitalist society, where the ruling 1% aims to slash funding for social services and schools.
Verizon claims that concessions would save money in the company’s declining land-line sector. The company, like AT&T, has encouraged customers to switch to less labor-intensive and largely non-union wireless service. There is little doubt that eventually, amidst a shrinking customer base, Verizon hopes to abandon land-line operation entirely.
At the same time, Verizon has been unwilling to negotiate a first equitable contract for its wireless retail-store workers. The retail workers are some of the company’s lowest paid employees, even though in 2015 the company raked in more than $18 billion in profits—paying its CEO Lowell McAdam $18 million and an additional $230 million to other top executives. The company has also invested $5 billion on share repurchasing, by buying its own stock and then jacking up the price to increase profitability.
Fortune magazine ran a story headlined “Verizon Brand Takes a Hit With Consumers As Strike Drags On.” Verizon started alleging that union sabotage was responsible for glitches in service. This was likely an exaggeration, if not an outright lie, to cover up incompetence of management and “temporary replacement” scabs who were attempting to do strikers’ work.
On the 15th day of the strike, the company made their “last, best and final offer.” Their wage proposal was improved to 7.5 percent over the life of the contract. But they wouldn’t move on issues like lengthy out-of-town transfers, or limits on outsourcing—or even on offshoring of bargaining unit work. The offer was rejected without scheduling any further palaver.
Strikers have received an outpouring of support in many local communities. One CWA worker from Local 1051 in Springfield, Mass., stated that they’ve received a much stronger expression of support from people passing by the picket line than they had on their 2011 strike.
The two unions have mobilized impressive demonstrations of thousands of members and allies in several cities. In an afternoon rally that took place on of the day of the walkout, about 8000 workers marched in the streets of New York City. They were joined by Democratic Party presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at different times. Both candidates gave lip service in support of the striking workers, although it should come as no surprise that the Wall Street-backed Clinton has had close ties with Verizon in the past, even receiving a $225,000 honorarium for a speech given in 2013.
Senator Sanders paid a visit to a wireless retail store in Brooklyn, where he addressed a crowd of about 150 workers. As his campaign rallies have swelled into the tens of thousands, however, Sanders has failed to use them as a forum to rally solidarity with the strike and to call on his supporters to join the workers on the picket line.
Although the Democratic Party has claimed to be the friend of organized labor, it has frequently acted to snuff out working-class struggles. As far back as 1941, for example, “New Deal” President Roosevelt broke the 75-day Allis-Chalmers strike by sending in the National Guard to smash the pickets.
A more modern example of betrayal of the labor movement by the Democrats can be found in Chicago. On April 1, nearly 20,000 CTU teachers and supporters gathered to fight austerity measures put forth by Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and Democratic Mayor Rahm Emmanuel to privatize schools, break unions, and cut desperately needed social services.
A few days later, in Connecticut, nearly 1000 marched to oppose $900 million in cuts proposed by Democratic Gov. Daniel P. Malloy. In a state with one of the highest wealth gaps between the richest 1% and the 99%, it’s obvious that such cuts would affect the most vulnerable people in the state. Many social services would be without funding, schools would be closed, and 2000 state employees would find themselves unemployed. And all the while, no taxes would be increased on the rich.
In an era when walkouts of 39,000 are seldom seen, and the labor movement struggles to gain footing after decades of union busting by both the Democratic and the Republican wings of the ruling class, the battle being waged by the workers of the CWA and IBEW must be admired. A victory for the workers of Verizon would be momentous for the labor movement and an inspiration for workers not only in the U.S. but worldwide.
At our press deadline, May 5, the unions have asked for support as they expand picketing and demonstrations at Verizon stores nationwide. Verizon workers need and deserve active solidarity from the entire labor movement in what will likely be a bitter battle.
Photo: Marty Goodman / Socialist Action