Verizon bosses lead the attack on our unions
By Michael Ware, laid-off steward, CWA Local 1109 | July 18, 2003 | Page 12
TELECOMMUNICATIONS giant Verizon has been ordered to reinstate 2,300 employees laid off in New York state last December and pay them back wages. This victory for union workers has shaken up high-stakes contract negotiations in the run-up to an August 2 deadline.
The July 11 ruling by arbitrator Shyam Das means that employees, members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), in New York state, will receive an estimated $100 million in back pay, and forced transfers will be nullified. Similar cases are awaiting outcome throughout the Northeast.
What the New York ruling dramatically highlighted is the way that even profitable companies are using the lousy economy to demand givebacks from workers. If a huge moneymaker like Verizon--which earned an industry-leading $4.1 billion in profits in 2002--can get away with eliminating jobs in the next contract, it will have a far-reaching effect. At stake is not only the fate of unions in the telecommunications industry, but the labor movement as a whole.
In late 2002, Verizon imposed the first-ever layoffs by the phone company in New York. The company declared a surplus of employees due to an "external event." This is the only way to justify layoffs under the current contract, which allows job cuts because of significant technological changes or the loss of a complete line of business.
Verizon tried to claim that the telecommunications crisis and the general economic downturn were sufficient justifications--despite the company's huge profits and the eight-digit salaries of top executives. The company's legal dream team dragged out the arbitration case for seven months, hoping that the normally pro-business system would back their bogus claim.
They were shocked when the arbitrator showed some principle instead. Now Verizon will be asking for a pound of flesh in negotiations that will shape the telecommunications industry for years to come.
This is the latest in a series of battles at the company. In 1989, NYNEX, a Verizon predecessor, tried to extract concessions from the union, but lost a bitter and militant 17-week strike. Hundreds were arrested, and two strikers died, but the militancy intimidated company managers into backing down.
NYNEX and its successor company, Bell Atlantic, didn't press the issue in the boom of the late 1990s--and the CWA had the leverage to win significant gains by striking in 1998 and 2000. Since then, however, Verizon has waged a one-sided war against the CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
The company wants to break the power of the union to compete with non-union rivals and other threats like cable and internet providers. As Socialist Worker went to press, the company had temporarily suspended contract negotiations to reformulate their outrageous demands--which will no doubt include even more layoffs.
They have demanded the right to transfer work and lay off anyone hired after April 3, 1994. Other demands include higher co-pays for less generous medical benefits, elimination of sick pay for most workers, expanded subcontracting rights and a litany of smaller concessions. Management also wants to block unionization at its Verizon Wireless subsidiary.
Clearly, the company is willing to risk a strike or lockout to force concessions. "[Verizon is] taking advantage of turmoil in the industry, an anti-union climate and a national health care crisis to drive down our members' standard of living," CWA District 1's Bob Master recently told the Village Voice. "They don't need this to be competitive; they see an opportunity, and they are taking it."
With few visible union victories and low strike levels, the battle at Verizon is a significant test for the labor movement. Solidarity will be important in swaying public opinion behind a highly visible struggle of 75,000 union members against a hated and profitable company.
An inspiring fight at Verizon could help turn the labor movement around. But a spineless defeat would bring toasts in Verizon boardroom--and signal a further decline for unions. Enough is enough. Labor has to stand its ground and fight.
How we can take on Verizon
WITH LESS than three weeks to go before an August 2 strike deadline, unions at Verizon have done little to prepare for this showdown. Following multi-million-dollar public relations campaign against layoffs last fall, the union did nothing once the job cuts were imposed--2,300 in New York and 3,400 overall. Not only has CWA failed to force Verizon's hand on neutrality in union elections at Verizon Wireless, the company has gotten away with dramatic speedups.
Members are understandably frustrated. Local union meetings routinely turn into shouting matches. Union members are furious with officials for their inept strategy and failure to prevent layoffs.
Some of those who lost their jobs took the initiative to form a group called Laid Off Verizon. These members made up shirts that said, "Who's next? Fight for laid off members." They went to various local union meetings, as well as a retirees' meeting, and sold the shirts. Hundreds were sold--and it became difficult to forget the cause of laid-off members.
But instead of preparing for a do-or-die fight, the leadership's current contract mobilizations are severely lacking. Some union leaders have suggested that the union will catch the company off-guard by working without a contract and pursuing an "inside strategy" of work-to-rule. This would be disastrous.
The CWA has a long history of striking the minute that its contract expires. Not striking would show weakness and a lack of resolve, whetting the company's appetite to suspend and fire anyone taking part in job actions. This strategy would greatly increase the chances of defeat.
Now is the time to argue for a different strategy--based on rank-and-file action. The arbitration decision has given the union a badly needed boost. Rank-and-file workers and stewards should use this reversal of fortunes to better organize themselves for a strike or lockout.
The reversal of the layoffs will mean the return of 2,300 bitter, abused co-workers with no illusions in "cooperation." They will be fighting for their jobs again once the contract expires. They can help keep picket lines active and hold the union leadership accountable, should a strike or lockout ensue August 3.
Although Verizon seems prepared for a strike, it is also vulnerable. Debt has plagued the company due to management's bad investments. A long strike or lockout could stretch the company too thin.
But union members at Verizon need to prepare now. There is no shortcut to an organized membership. The mobilization committees of one coordinator for every 10 workers in 1989 took months to organize and train. Once in place, they were able to coordinate the intense harassment of scabs through mobile picketing--and to counter company propaganda and threats by the continuous direct involvement of members.
Although late in the game, union members need to push their leadership into action again today. Union members whose workplace lacks organization should contact their business agent or the union hall. With the company rumored to have booked thousands of hotel rooms for scabs under the name of Volt Communications, we will need every member on board and ready to fight.