Unions keep working without a contract, but...
By Lee Sustar | August 15, 2003 | Page 11
CAN THE unions' "inside strategy" win a good contract at Verizon? That question was on the minds of 78,000 workers at the telecommunications giant as they continued to work without a contract following the August 2 expiration of their previous contract.
The workers--some 60,000 in the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the rest in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)--have been told by union leaders that they could walk out at any time. "Our strategy and our mobilization activities have been working," CWA leaders told members in an update. "As our talks continue, the company is now, in effect, paying two workforces since management doesn't know if or when we might strike."
But even if it's true that Verizon management was caught off balance, working without a contract inevitably strengthens the employers' hand.
The first question is the morale of union members and their preparation for a strike. The rank and file has been on a roller coaster since last December, when management laid off 3,400 workers, despite protests, rallies and a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign by the union.
Those layoffs were rescinded in July after an arbitrator ruled in the CWA's favor. A strike seemed inevitable then.
Now, many workers are uncertain over what to do next. "Right before [the layoffs] last December, people were saying things like 'I'm going to sue the union because they didn't save my job,' or 'the union is in bed with the company,'" one laid-off worker in New York City told Socialist Worker. "Then, when the union won our jobs back--by getting an arbitrator to see that Verizon had violated our contract in laying us off--people shifted toward a thoroughly uncritical stance toward the union. "Suddenly, people were saying that we were invincible--that we would win a strike against the company no matter what they threw our way. Then, when the union told us to continue working without a contract, some people shifted back toward total disgust with the union. Those who aren't disgusted now are confused, to say the least."
Another Verizon worker, a customer service rep in Manhattan, reported that management had been harassing workers--since they are now without the protection of a contract.
Union leaders claim that Verizon is under pressure because it has to pay two workforces--wages for union workers, as well as for scabs who are being put up in hotels at company expense. But for a company with $22 billion in revenue and $4.1 billion in profits last year, this is a small, short-term investment to make if it can weaken the union in the long run. That was the strategy of the corporate owners of the Detroit newspapers, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, when they lost money in a years-long strike/lockout in the mid-1990s in order to inflict a decisive blow to labor in that industry.
In fact, the possibility of just such a long struggle is the second argument of CWA and IBEW union leaders, who say that today's technology makes it difficult for a strike to have an immediate impact on telecommunication companies' operations. But this was also true in 1998 and 2000, when the unions won strikes at Verizon and its predecessor company.
Then, however, the unions were able to take advantage of the telecommunications boom and management's fears of slipping behind the competition. Today, Verizon is "a different company" as one laid-off worker put it: "Ever since the 2000 strike, they've been more aggressive, and the union hasn't prepared for this contract like the last one at all."
For union leaders--in particular, those at the CWA--the problem is that their strategy of partnership with management has hit a dead end. During the 1990s, the CWA backed merger agreements among the so-called "Baby Bells"--spin-offs of regional operating companies once owned by AT&T--in exchange for improvements in wages and conditions.
The CWA lost 40,000 members in the restructuring--although CWA President Morton Bahr told a reporter earlier this year that three-quarters of those job losses were through early retirement and special severance packages negotiated with the company. In any case, good union jobs disappeared forever--in the name of labor-management cooperation.
"Indeed, industry analysts assert that while it is not uncommon for unions and management to work together on regulatory issues, the level of cooperation in telecommunications is perhaps more pronounced and sustained than in any other industry," the New York Times observed August 8.
In recent testimony before the U.S. Senate, Bahr sat alongside Verizon's top lawyer, former U.S. Attorney General William Barr as they lobbied Congress to prevent MCI from getting government contracts. The logic is that since MCI is nonunion, the CWA has an interest in backing Verizon on this issue--and also supporting regional Bell companies to win regulatory approval to enter the long-distance business.
Partnership in the industry didn't end conflict--as the strikes of 1998 and 2000 showed. Now that Verizon has emerged as the dominant player in the telecommunications industry, however, it has less need of partnership and is sharpening its attacks on unions.
The company wants to use the bankruptcy-ridden industry as an excuse to cut the number of union jobs through forced transfers and outsourcing--even as it brags to Wall Street about plans to invest $40 billion in fiber optic cable networks. So this time around, striking Verizon--or being locked out by management--would be a major struggle. The IBEW, for example, has no strike fund.
But the company has made it clear that there's no way to avoid a battle. The question is: What will it take to win?
Picket lines may not be able to stop technology, but they can be used to stop scabs from carrying out the repairs and installations that Verizon needs. No company--no matter how automated--can function if workers are on the picket line and scabs are prevented from doing their work. Solidarity from the labor movement can provide the financial support to carry through the struggle--and big support rallies and actions could pressure Verizon to give in.
Whether or not the CWA and IBEW step up to that challenge depends on the action of rank-and-file union members. As one Verizon installer in Queens put it, "This is not the first or last time that the workers of Verizon will be under attack from the company, and that we can't change. "What we can change is how we deal with it, and that starts today. If you look at successful mobilizations of the past, a big part of what worked is the democratic involvement of the rank and file."
Verizon workers win strike in North Carolina
GREENSBORO, N.C.--After a 12-week strike against Verizon in western North Carolina, the 150 workers of Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 3673 have won most of their demands.
A new three-year contract was ratified by an overwhelming majority at a union meeting August 7. The new contract includes a 12 percent pay raise over three years and a 4 percent increase in pension benefits. Workers retained their current level of short-term disability benefits, which the company was threatening to take away.
The strike also prevented Verizon from getting rid of the emergency family medical leave provision. According to a CWA press release, other gains included "a new hearing aid benefit, a new vision care plan, a boost in dental benefits from the present 50 percent to 80 percent paid, an additional floating holiday, a new $10,000 adoption benefit."
But on the key strike issue of forced overtime, the new contract contains little more than the formation of a "joint task force" to "study" the issue.
Kurt Ball, a worker in Weaverville, N.C., told Socialist Worker that some were disappointed about the lack of progress on the overtime issue. But, he continued, "we won big, and we're happy. Hopefully, this will keep us motivated for the next contract fight."