Picket lines go up at Verizon

Peter Rugh and Chris Murphy report on what's at stake in the strike at Verizon.

Verizon workers on the picket line on the first day of the CWA strike (Peter Lamphere | SW)Verizon workers on the picket line on the first day of the CWA strike (Peter Lamphere | SW)

SOME 45,000 workers at Verizon are on strike across the Northeast, from Massachusetts to Virginia, in one of the largest labor actions in years. Union members are taking a stand against a company that, despite huge profits, is demanding ever more concessions from workers.

Members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) walked out August 7 after voting overwhelmingly--including 91 percent of CWA members--to authorize a strike. The workers are technicians and customer support employees in Verizon's wire lines division, which provides Internet and land phone lines to homes and businesses in the Northeast.

The telecommunications giant is attempting to strip its employees of benefits the union workforce has successfully fought for over the years, including the imposition of 25 percent of health care costs onto workers who have paid nothing until now; the elimination of traditional pensions; and the weakening of job security.

As workers got ready to start picketing at the midnight contract deadline, there was a sea of red T-shirts in Providence, R.I., with 200 members and supporters of IBEW Local 2323 turning out. At midnight as the strike began, up went a chant of "Protest corporate greed!" Another striker yelled, "Everybody ready for this war--no givebacks!"

The same spirit was displayed across the Northeast. According to reports from picket lines up and down the East Coast, workers are ready to send a message to Verizon. "We give our whole life to this company, and this is what we get?" demanded one worker. Another added, "Screw this company--we're going to take it to them!"

"It's not just about us," said Chris Germershausen, a member of CWA Local 1101 who was on the picket line at Verizon's headquarters in downtown Manhattan. "If they get us to give in, they'll go after construction workers next, iron workers, everybody. Corporations will run everything. We can't let that happen."

Verizon is in no position to cry poverty. Verizon's top five executives collected a combined $258 million in salaries, bonuses and stock options over the last four years, during which time the company made nearly $20 billion--$10 billion in 2010 alone. This year, Verizon received a federal tax rebate of $1.3 billion. That's after a $1.5 billion federal bailout in 2008.

Yet despite its high profits and lavish executive salaries, Verizon is proposing nothing but concessions for workers. As an August 6 CWA statement explained, "Even at the 11th hour, as contracts were set to expire, Verizon continued to seek to strip away 50 years of collective bargaining gains for middle-class workers and their families. Following the game plan of Wisconsin, Verizon is trying to destroy the collective bargaining process by refusing to engage seriously on the issues."

Company demands include:

-- Gutting job security provisions;

-- Freezing pensions for current workers and eliminating them for future employees;

-- Replacing current high-quality health care plan with a high-deductible plan requiring thousands of dollars in premium cost-sharing;

-- Eliminating accident disability benefits and slashing sickness disability benefits;

-- Contracting out work to low-wage contractors, including outsourcing jobs overseas;

-- Cutting paid holidays down to seven, including eliminating Martin Luther King Day and Veteran's Day;

-- Reducing annual paid sick days to no more than five, with none at all for employees with fewer than two years of seniority.

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CWA AND IBEW members have organized successful walkouts in previous years--in 1983, 1986, 1989, 1998 and 2000--effectively pushing back against aggressive demands for concessions.

But over the last decade, Verizon management has conducted a relentless campaign to chip away at union jobs by building up nonunion subsidiaries. Verizon has not only been outsourcing work to Mexico and the Philippines, but also hiring non-union labor within the U.S., at dramatically lower wages.

Since 2003, the union workforce of the East Coast unit of Verizon has shrunk from 75,000 to 45,000 as a result of buyouts, attrition and job cuts. At the same time, the non-union workforce at Verizon has grown to 135,000.

The day after their overwhelming strike vote, 20,000 CWA members and supporters--along with IBEW members who authorized a strike in July--turned out for a massive rally at Verizon's corporate headquarters in Manhattan. Their message: "We won't go back!"

"We don't want to give up what we fought for over the years," said Lila, who works for Verizon as a technician in Syracuse, N.Y., "We have to organize to make our lives better. Corporate America doesn't give a fuck about us." T-shirts at the rally featured a python and read, "Will Strike If Provoked." Verizon has certainly provoked the workers to strike.

It's clear that members are determined to take a stand, but as former CWA representative and labor journalist Steve Early noted in a recent article, they face several challenges:

Over the past two decades, due to automation, Verizon has developed far greater capacity to weather a conventional walkout by utilizing management personnel, and, most importantly, the parallel workforce provided by its 135,000 nonunion employees and extensive network of contract call centers.

Verizon also issued a statement claiming that it has "trained tens of thousands of management employees, retirees and others to fill the roles and responsibilities of its union-represented wireline workers."

Meanwhile, the current showdown with Verizon comes on the heals of major concessions in contract negotiations with General Electric in which the CWA along with other unions agreed to a sharp rise in the amount employees pay for health care and the elimination of pensions for new hires.

So Verizon workers are facing a tough fight. But this assault is also taking place in the midst of growing bitterness and anger at the demands of the business and political establishment that working people--from teachers and public-sector workers to the labor movement in private industry--bear the brunt of the economic crisis.

If union members at Verizon succeed in challenging the attack on their living standards, it would be an important step toward reversing the trend of corporations using the recession to force concessions and a major victory for those who hope to rebuild the labor movement. CWA and IBEW members walking the picket line today deserve all the support we can give them.

Gary Lapon and Jennifer Roesch contributed to this article.