Strikers seeing red over Verizon's greed

A member of Communications Workers of America Local 1106 reports on the first week of the Verizon strike--with reports from picket lines up and down the East Coast.

Communications workers picket against Verizon in New York (Peter Lamphere | SW)Communications workers picket against Verizon in New York (Peter Lamphere | SW)

ONE WEEK into the strike by 45,000 members of Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electricians (IBEW), Verizon has shown exactly how nasty it plans to fight.

Verizon has launched an offensive of media lies and legal attacks to undermine public support and hobble union mobilizations. Full-page ads and court injunctions against pickets came fast and furious this week, infuriating strikers and their supporters.

But union members are determined not to let the company dictate the terms of this fight. Striking locals are taking a three-pronged approach to the battle.

The first prong is the traditional picket line at workplaces, where strikers heckle and delay management and scabs as they enter and leave.

Second is following the work--literally following scab trucks as they go from job to job, and picketing where they work: poles, manholes, terminals and customer premises. Mobile picketing has been used since 1989 to harass and embarrass under-trained managers, who sometimes just give up and leave.

Third is picketing Verizon Wireless (VZW) retail stores, which are technically part of the strike--though only 50 of the more than 50,000 VZW employees are covered under the collective bargaining agreement.

Mass pickets at large workplaces have numbered more than 500 workers at times. A lunchtime rally of CWA Local 1101 members at Verizon's headquarters at 140 West St. in Lower Manhattan overflowed sidewalks, causing traffic delays. More than 500 members of Local 1106 flooded the quiet streets of Springfield Gardens, Queens, almost knocking down a metal fence surrounding a Verizon garage in response to management bullying of pickets.

Members have also taken it upon themselves at times to stand down individual trucks as they leave to work. Replacement workers, who are often out-of-state managers rushed through training, have been seen using ladders upside down, failing to figure out how to open terminals, and almost falling off poles. Mobile pickets jeer and humiliate them, often drowning out test tones, making the job impossible.

But most satisfying have been the VZW pickets, which have tapped into the widespread anti-corporate sentiment on the street. Loud crowds numbering 50 or more have impeded business or outright shut down stores.

In New York, the Manhattan 34th Street store had to close for the day because of relentless chanting. For two days running, the Astoria, Queens, location had to lock its doors to stop supportive pedestrians from holding doors open while picketers with a bullhorn and sound system chanted, sang and made speeches to disrupt business.

In Massachusetts, the presence of CWA Local 1400 picketers kept one location empty for three days. In every case, passersby have honked, cheered, given the thumbs up or stopped to join chanting and asked how to lend their support. Verizon management's claim that "no one will support overpaid union members" is clearly not true.

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THE COMPANY returned fire at the first opportunity--using the courts to try to stop the unions.

First came an injunction in Pennsylvania after strikers allegedly chained a work location door shut. Then injunctions in Delaware, New York and now New Jersey. These court orders limit the number of pickets in most places to between six and 50 people, depending on the size of the workplace, and they require pickets to stay 15 feet from entrances or exits.

Bizarrely, some injunctions attempt to ban the presence of pets or children--apparently anything that would humanize the strikers and get sympathy.

This legal offensive will undoubtedly reverse what had so far been an often-friendly atmosphere among strikers and police. Despite supportive sentiments from individual cops--including advice about how to avoid being charged with harassment by scabs--the law is coming down hard on the side of Verizon. And the company is pushing for an interpretation of the law that limits unions as much as possible.

The company also knows that, even with its legal advantages, if the public turns on them, they could lose. So they're stacking the deck with an ad campaign depicting union members as greedy--and possibly criminals. One ad claims that technicians make $91,000 a year with $50,000 in benefits and four weeks of vacation--which would only be possible if a worker did 200 hours of overtime at top pay and had more than 15 years on the job.

Another ad offers a $50,000 reward for anyone found sabotaging Verizon equipment--a not-too-subtle suggestion that strikers are vandals.

But it's management that's responsible for injuring strikers time and again. Over two dozen strikers were hit by Verizon trucks in the first week--a handful of them wound up in the hospital.

With tensions rising, strikers will need to think strategically about the legal challenges--and when and how to break the law with mass mobilizations and civil disobedience to confront the company--especially if the trickle of scabs increases to a more serious level. Verizon might be willing to take some hits on service for a while, but it could eventually decide to try to permanently replace union members. In that case, confronting scabs to shut down production will be back on the table.

With the company's overall workforce now majority nonunion, CWA and IBEW members need to see workers at VZW as potential allies and future union brothers and sisters. We need to turn the tide back toward a majority union company. Many (if not all) in-store technical workers will lose their jobs at the end of the month when the company reorganizes tech support, so there has never been a better time to demonstrate the benefits a union can provide.

Unions also need to go back to the tactics from 1989 and encourage customers not to pay their bills in solidarity with the strike. Now, with online billing, the company has a rock-solid income--but a campaign of de-enrolling in Easy Pay by the union could make waves. The 45,000 union members themselves are customers, with connections to literally hundreds of thousands of other households.

In addition, we need to highlight the toll Verizon's greed is taking on our families. Not only are strikers losing pay, but on August 30, we lose our health care. Rallies with children and dependent family members could expose the blatant greed of a profitable company depriving thousands of people of necessary care.

Besides reaching out to VZW and the public, we need to focus on the kind of aggressive, disruptive tactics that can win this strike. The outcome of this strike is unwritten, but the pieces are there for an important victory for labor.

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THROUGHOUT NEW York City, picket lines have been strong and spirits high during the first week of the strike--boosted by visits from teachers, transit workers and other union and non-union supporters.

Strikers also report that UPS drivers, members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, have refused to cross picket lines, forcing UPS to send managers out to deliver to Verizon stores. "I'm shocked by the solidarity from other workers," said Pete D'Esposito, a CWA Local 1101 chief steward at the 13th Street building in Manhattan. "It's a very different attitude existing in this society compared to the 1980s and '90s. We're their horse in this race."

Some workers emphasized that Verizon can't claim poverty in the same way as state governments demanding concessions from public-sector workers. "Everyone else is cutting back, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps," said Kim, another 1101 chief steward. "That's not the case here. It's a prime example of corporate greed."

Other strikers drew connections with the wider labor movement. Nicole, a New York City Verizon worker for 11 years, said, "If you break one union, you break them all. You start shifting the work into cheaper countries. The middle class and the working class are the backbone of this country."

Unlike most American workers, many CWA and IBEW members have ample strike experience, since their unions have struck Verizon six times in the past 30 years. Laverne Sparrow, a 30-year veteran, talked about how "the 1989 strike was very hard--17 weeks--but the union really fought and hung together. We got a great contract out of it."

Local 1101 chief steward Dominic Renda described the 2000 strike: "Technicians set up flying pickets to follow around scabs doing installation work or repairs. They would tell the customers that the person showing up to do work was a scab. Many times, the customers would refuse to allow the scab to do work or repairs."

As in many strikes, workers on the picket line talked to supporters not just about the disputed issues in the contract, but also about the many ways their job has gotten harder and more pressured in recent years. Call center workers complained about management pressure to limit phone calls to four minutes, which often makes genuine customer service impossible.

"The company has hired managers who don't know the work but only know how to pressure us to meet numbers," said Lana, a customer service representative from Forest Hills and member of CWA Local 1105. "We're supposed to overcome objections from customers to get them to buy more products. Right now, I have a problem with my own Verizon account, but I'm afraid to call because these people have no idea what they're doing."

At every picket line, Verizon workers warmly welcomed supporters and urged them to return and bring others. "We want people to bring their families and friends to build up the picket line," said Renda. "We don't want people to cross. The stronger our presence, the more likely we will be able to convince people not to cross the picket line. I'm encouraging members to do more than the minimum number of hours [on the picket line]."

In other cities where Verizon workers are striking--along the East Coast from Massachusetts to Virginia--they are also finding support for their struggle.

-- In Providence, R.I., a striker explained, "This is a fight for working families--this is a fight for our livelihoods. Everyone should have a union and the benefits we have."

David Robitaille, a Verizon worker who was laid off in 2008, said, "In 2008, they had big profits. Yet they laid off 13,000 workers across the country. They said that with [fiber optic service], they were going to keep the call centers in the U.S. Yet they have opened up one in Tijuana and one in India."

Members of the Rhode Island community showed their solidarity by going to the picket line from a Jobs Not Cuts rally held at the statehouse earlier in the day.

-- At a picket line in Baltimore, several retired CWA members, concerned about keeping their health care, turned out. A 12-year veteran of Verizon walked the line with her 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son, with a homemade placard reading, "Union Busting Is a No-No."

Three generations of women from the same family were walking the picket line. Workers were ready for a serious fight, and some said that their managers told them to clean out their desks when the strike began. One woman said that she had been trying to prepare for this strike for the last year by filing grievances and building solidarity in her workplace.

Ben Dalbey, Paul Hubbard, Gary Lapon, Bill Linville, Chris Murphy and Sherry Wolf contributed to this article.