CWA and IBEW need to prepare their members for a fight
By Michael Ware, Laid-off shop steward, CWA Local 1109 | July 11, 2003 | Page 11
NEW YORK--As the August 2 contract expiration nears for Verizon and its unions, the company has gone on the offensive once again to demand major givebacks on job security, health care, sick pay and outsourcing. While the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) are coordinating their efforts to hold the line and talk tough, the unions' sluggish mobilizations and declining militancy spell trouble for their memberships.
In the name of "improved operational flexibility," Verizon is demanding the right to lay off anyone with less than 10 years' seniority, a two-tier wage system for new hires, drastically higher co-pays for medical benefits, revision of overtime pay rules, unlimited subcontracting, elimination of most sick pay and ability to transfer almost any work. These demands come on the heels of massive speed-ups through discipline for low productivity, vehicle tracking through Global Positioning Systems and the rigid monitoring of customer service representatives.
Negotiations with Verizon, a Baby Bell company, cover 75,000 unionized workers from Maine to Virginia. And though the CWA won a pledge in 2000 from Verizon to remain neutral in union elections at Verizon Wireless, the company has since resisted unionization at every turn--and declared war on jobs in the densely unionized area of traditional phone service.
Verizon has already laid off 3,400 workers during the current contract. The CWA fought the December 2002 layoffs in New York with an expensive media campaign meant to shame the company. Verizon axed jobs anyway and the union caved, refusing to risk an illegal strike and the possibility of heavy fines.
Missing from the unions' strategy is any reliance on the rank and file to fight on their own behalf. Years of top-down management of the unions has meant that much of the membership has no experience with real militancy. The union has become a passive service and negotiating organization.
There is also no vision of how to fight the one-sided class war waged by corporations to eliminate unions and drive down labor costs. Most unions respect the employers' right to make a profit and shun the reality that cooperation doesn't work. They're in a crisis because their top-down, bureaucratic solutions don't work in a recession.
But in 1989, the union faced a similar threat with Verizon's predecessor, NYNEX--and won. Starting a year before contract expiration, job actions and strike mobilizations prepared members for a serious fight, leading to a virtual shop-floor war in the months leading up to the strike.
Greater solidarity between the CWA and IBEW played a key role, and the CWA leadership under the direction of District 1 Vice President Jan Pierce was more willing to confront the company. Mobilization coordinators organized fellow workers for mobile pickets that harassed scabs in the field.
During the 17-week strike, hundreds of strikers were arrested or suspended upon return to work, but the militancy they displayed by stopping trucks and following scabs led management to conclude that the picketing was "the worst we have ever seen...the degree and intensity of harassment is devastating." The CWA and IBEW won the strike and preserved wages and benefits in successful strikes in 1998 and 2000.
That level of mobilization and militancy is now largely absent. Members are frustrated with the leadership for failing to stop any of the company's attacks. Rank-and-file action is needed to push the leadership to action.
The return of laid-off members should be a central demand for the strike, the rallying cry of LaidOffVerizon, a rank-and-file group in New York. Mobilization coordinators should involve co-workers in preparing for a strike and picket duty. Work-to-rule campaigns should become highly visible throughout July.
This isn't a simply a war between Verizon and its unions, but one battle in a corporate and government-backed war on the international working class. It's time to fight back.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Verizon workers talk strategy as deadline nears
IN CONTRACT negotiations that began June 16 with the Communication Workers of America (CWA), Verizon is demanding givebacks so huge that, according to one CWA official, they "would catapult our members back to the 1940s." CWA leaders are now floating the idea of what they call the "selective strike," which means that one part of the union's membership would strike while the rest continues working.Socialist Worker's DOMINIC RENDA, a member of CWA Local 1105, interviewed rank-and-file members MIAMARIE SWENSON, PEGGY CASSEUS, SHERIDAN SINGLETARY and BOBBY WHITNEY--chief steward of CWA Local 1105--and asked what they thought of the union's plan.
What do you think of the selective strike tactic?
Miamarie: In unity, there is strength. Isn't that the union's slogan? I don't understand where the unity is when we would allow our fellow brothers and sisters to fight the fight while we go to work and collect a paycheck. In the meantime, they wonder how they are going to pay their rent and buy clothes for their kids. Isn't there also an issue here of respecting their picket line?
And if people are working without a contract, how bad would office morale be? I would assume they would do their best to make our lives miserable by taking advantage of the fact that we do not have a contract.
Peggy: Our union is totally falling apart. I disagree with a selective strike. If we the union plan on a selective strike, we might as well forget about being unionized, which is what the company wants. We are helping out management.
Sheridan: Without using profanity--ridiculous.
Union leaders are suggesting that if we work without a contract, the company would be "stunned." Do you think that this is true?
Miamarie: They would be stunned all right--but in a pleasant way! I would think it would be Verizon's biggest dream come true to finally have their workers without a contract. That's exactly what they have been striving for.
It would also seem to me that the longer we work without a contract, the odds would be in Verizon's favor. How do we know we would end up with a solid contract? We don't want to fall into the mistake of settling for any contract because it's better than having no contract at all.
Sheridan: In my opinion, they'd be pleased.
Bobby: [They'd be stunned] for a minute, then [they'd] fuck us.
Peggy: If we work without a contract, then the company might as well not give us a new contract. This will mean horrible working conditions, no benefits, no increase in wages, no job security. All the members should walk out. We are one union. We all pay union dues. Either we all walk or nothing.
One reason CWA has considered selective striking is because the company may send calls to another location if we walk out. What do you think of the selective strike given this possible scenario?
Miamarie: Haven't they been trying to do this all along? If we choose a selective strike, they would probably lock us out anyway and then reroute the calls. The bottom line is that if they want to reroute the calls, they will find a way to do it.
Peggy: No one can do our jobs better than us. In the past, they have tried to send our work to other locations, and it always fails.
Bobby: I have been galvanizing each and every member I come in contact with. Let's shut down the alternative locations.
Given the challenges facing the labor movement, how should we understand our contract struggle?
Miamarie: We can only lead by example. If we fight and come up with a fair and decent contract, it will show what unity is all about and what you are capable of when you stand together. If we put our tails between our legs and cower in the corner, that will also show the rest of the world something. Unfortunately that outcome won't be so positive.
Sheridan: Union work built this country and made it strong. Our strike has the potential to show how much power--or how useless--a union is today.