By BILL ONASCH
Strikes are the most basic and common expressions of clashes between workers and employers. Cartoonists often illustrate these fights as heavyweight boxers slugging it out in the ring. But within this metaphor there are few knockouts. Winners and losers are usually determined on points for the best punches and most adept footwork. In this century, most decisions—with occasional important exceptions–have gone to the boss.
The boss class has some inherent advantages in these conflicts during “normal” times. Especially in the private sector, they own the workplace and their property rights are vigorously enforced by courts—backed by armed police, sometimes even military forces.
They have the legal right during “economic” strikes to permanently replace strikers with strikebreakers. Many of the most effective strike actions—such as mass picketing to block access to their workplace, secondary boycotts of other companies doing business with the struck employer, and “hot cargo” embargoes enforced by rail and truck workers refusing to move goods usually produced by strikers—are illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act, which covers most private sector workers.
Many public sector, agricultural, and domestic service workers have no legal rights at all to collective bargaining. Major industrial corporations today have alternative sources of production to reduce a strike’s impact on their “bottom line.” These formidable challenges have succeeded in reducing the numbers and length of strikes in the United States over the last few decades—and especially during this century.
But some modest or partial strike victories in recent years—Temple University Hospital nurses, Chicago teachers, oil workers national agreement, Kohler—have inspired a few unions to continue this tactic even as all the pundits tell them that their shrinking unions are now irrelevant and strikes are futile.
The Borg-like so-called “management” of Verizon apparently believed its own ruling-class propaganda. After months of unproductive “bargaining,” it presented an outrageous “last, best, and final” offer to the Communications Workers of America, and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, representing 39,000 workers in Verizon’s landline sector in Eastern states ranging from New England to Virginia.
The Verizon bosses might have expected that the workers would capitulate. The last strike had to be wound up after only two weeks—with little to show for the effort. Labor experts retained by Verizon undoubtedly counseled them that historically unions have been reluctant to call major strikes during a presidential election year. The bureaucracy that sits atop most American unions does not want to embarrass their Democrat “friends.” In fact, its top priority over the next five months is hustling votes for the Donkeys. Verizon’s hubris essentially challenged the unions to “bring it on.”
Though not a hormonal response to a bully’s trash talk, the Verizon workers did indeed bring it on. First of all, they remembered what the company tried to ignore—the boss had been paying them because they needed their work. The landlines can’t be moved to Mexico and there aren’t enough qualified white shirts to keep up with installations, repairs, or even the call centers for long. And efforts to employ “temporary replacements” fell far short of expectations.
The striking unions demonstrated their numbers and determination from Day One, with rallies of thousands in the major cities served by the landlines. And their goals of saving and expanding good jobs were well received by the working-class public.
The unions also recognized the vulnerability of the Verizon “brand” in the highly competitive national wireless market. CWA, along with Jobs with Justice, and other union and community allies conducted informational pickets at Verizon wireless retail stores across the country.
The unions didn’t exactly try to shield their Democrat friends from a boisterous strike. CWA is a strong backer of Bernie Sanders while the IBEW is for Hillary Clinton. Both candidates were obligated to make well publicized, though token, visits to the picket lines.
About halfway into the six-week strike, articles started appearing in papers such as The Wall Street Journal reporting that Verizon was taking a hard hit from the strike. To both mend some fences with unions and to give Verizon a dignified path to ending the strike, the Obama administration intervened. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez—who has been mentioned as a possible running mate with Hillary Clinton—personally brokered mediation talks that led to the settlement.
The deal was not completely free of union concessions. Before the strike, the unions had agreed to additional “cost-sharing” of health insurance. And other concessions might be hidden in the implementation of the new contract, as is the case with so many other settlements negotiated today under unfavorable conditions. But virtually all of the apparent takeaways in the company’s “final offer” were dropped, and some substantial gains for the workers were won. These include:
- Instead of more outsourcing of call center jobs, 1300 new jobs will be added.
- Instead of a cap on pensions, there will be three one-percent increases in defined benefits.
- A modest number of both retail store workers and technicians in the wireless division are now included in the contract for the first time.
- Some contracting-out initiatives will be reversed, leading to a 25 percent increase in union pole jobs in New York City.
- There will be $1250 signing bonuses and a guarantee of at least $700 annual profit-sharing.
- A 3 percent raise in wages takes effect immediately, and there will be three more 2.5 percent increases over the life of the four-year contract.
What do the ringside judges think of this bout? The bosses’ media, other union officials, and socialist commentators all seem to join in a unanimous decision that the striking unions appear to have won on points.
But the war at Verizon will continue. The company will intensify their efforts to spin off the landline division to concentrate on the more profitable wireless sector. And they will likely bitterly resist union efforts to expand the beachhead they now have in wireless through further organizing. But the bosses will now have to deal with more seasoned and self-confident unions.
Of course, strikes are not always appropriate in every situation. But Verizon is a fresh example that well-prepared strikes can still be effective in beating back boss attacks and can even win gains in pay and conditions. It is the attempts by too many unions to seek “partnership” with the employers, and granting concessions to “save jobs,” that are futile.
Photo: NBC 10, Philadelphia