CWA knuckles under after promising to fight job cuts
By a laid-off CWA member | January 3, 2003 | Page 11
DESPITE BILLIONS in profits and a pressing need to rebuild its infrastructure, Verizon, New York laid off 2,300 unionized employees in the state on December 19.
Remaining employees are now being forced to work 10-hour days because of a heavy workload and a union work-to-rule campaign, yet publicly Verizon continues to claim it just doesn't need as many employees. More layoffs will follow in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states until the contract expires in August 2003.
It couldn't be more clear that the layoffs were pursued to bust the union and please Wall Street. But the Communications Workers of America's (CWA) response to Verizon's war has been hot air and little action on the ground.
Officials in CWA were whispering that the union would "unofficially" walk out for two days in response to the layoffs. Because of legal considerations, the union leadership tried to distance itself from any responsibility. Most of the membership expected and wanted to strike, but with insufficient rank-and-file organization to hold the leadership accountable, union officials caved.
The threat of fines and legal action against the union pushed the leadership to accept the layoffs without striking. In New York City, only Local 1106 in Queens organized pickets and kept workers home on December 20. Other pickets formed on December 20 were organized among co-workers without the union's approval in the hope of sparking more resistance.
Laid-off workers asked their co-workers to honor their picket lines. As the confrontation grew, management threatened severe punishment for employees and claimed that picketers had thereby given up their right to recall, a highly disputable claim.
The union mouthed some support, but echoed many of the company's threats. The CWA leadership had gone from its slogan, "not one member," to chastising its members for resisting the layoffs.
At a meeting of the 40 local Verizon CWA presidents in New York State last month, union officials concluded that a strike was too risky. Instead of striking, they offered an eight-point plan, which was identical to the union's prior course of action with the addition of the "minimization of overtime."
This so-called strategy is a pathetic dodge. The leadership knows that it won't stop the company, but it needs to convince the membership that it is fighting the layoffs. Some officials concede that they might not stick to their demand of returning of all laid-off workers in the 2003 contract fight.
Because of the no-strike clause in the current contract and the lack of grounds for a legal strike, the union would have to make the repeal of fines and the rehire of all workers part of any settlement. Obviously, that course of action carries risk. But most every union right was illegal or not protected by law at some point. Illegal strikes have led to some of labor's greatest victories. The union rightly claims that the laws are stacked in big business' favor, but then refuses to break those laws even if it means watching the slow destruction of their union.
What's more, Verizon is vulnerable to a long strike. But CWA members have placed their hopes in a pro-business court and a judge who has already ruled against the union.
CWA rank and file begins to organize
THE CWA's failure to fight the layoffs at Verizon has less to do with the weakness of individual leaders than the difference of interests between union officials and rank-and-file members.
While officials periodically have to face elections, they won't ever be laid off and they don't live by the contract. They haven't endured deteriorating conditions, more discipline and speed-ups. They spend more time talking to management than to the rank and file.
Without a rank-and-file network to pressure the leadership and act independently when officials refuse to fight, the officials will continue to submit to Verizon's attacks. You could elect a new batch of officials, but without rank-and-file pressure, you would get the same results.
Because of the union's passivity over the last year, union members have been organizing themselves. The Coalition for Change emerged in Queens as an electoral challenge to the leadership of Local 1106. Rank'n'FileVerizon, a looser network, sprang up to fight layoffs and coordinate rank-and-file action.
These groups and networks must now join forces and coordinate actions, especially given the union's recent failures. A dozen laid-off workers from Queens and Brooklyn picketed Verizon's Manhattan headquarters on December 23. A larger action is planned for December 30 and for the weeks to come.
By staying organized and active, laid-off workers and those still on the job can force the union to fight rather than forget. These actions may start small, but if they spread, they have the power to stop Verizon cold.