A struggle put on hold?
looks at the battle for a union contract at Verizon one year after a two-week strike by tens of thousands of workers across the Northeast.
WITH NO end is in sight after 14 months of bargaining between telecom giant Verizon and 45,000 members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the distance between the anger of the union members and the timidity of union negotiators has never been greater.
For four weeks, the two parties have been negotiating under the guidance of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) in Washington, D.C. Publicly, the company maintains its original position: the unions must concede in every area of the contract in order to bring the bargaining unit into line with industry standards.
For Verizon, that means freezing or ending pensions; eliminating work rules that limit contracting out and the movement of work and workers; instituting premiums for health care and increasing costs for every aspect of coverage; ending job security; drastically reducing sick time; and creating a permanent rotating schedule that eliminates the two-day weekend.
Starting in late July, the union and company began issuing deadlines for ending the mediation, which kept the members in a constant state of agitation and discussion about the possibility of a second strike, one year after two weeks on the picket line.
Most people, including the local leaderships of the CWA and IBEW, believed the company was only engaging in mediation as a p.r. stunt to look like they really tried to reach an agreement before imposing their "last, best, and final" offer, thereby forcing the union to either accept horrific concessions or call a strike.
While most members were scared about taking part in a prolonged strike, the prospect of being permanently replaced--a notion being circulated by national union leaders--is not widely accepted.
In fact, according the unions' own accounts, it was Verizon that initiated ongoing negotiations in reaction to more aggressive union tactics. And remember that the original 2011 strike ended at the company's request after only 13 days. Nevertheless, the unions' national leaderships continue to make apocalyptic statements that the company "wants us to walk out and never come back."
Similarly, when the first round of mediation talks were set to conclude on August 3, unions told their members to rally in front of their workplaces at lunch. For employees who work outside, this meant returning their work trucks and walking out of the gate.
Verizon management thought we were walking off the job. Their reaction, according to the bargaining team, was to immediately request further negotiations.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
UNLESS THE union leadership is baldly lying to members, the company's sudden enthusiasm for talks hardly indicates Verizon's confidence in their ability to run operations without us indefinitely.
But to the surprise of union members, there was no deadline after all. The FMCS announced August 15 that both parties would "continue their negotiations until concluded."
To many Verizon workers, that announcement indicates the elimination of the possibility of striking. As a result, confidence in the leadership of the unions is at an all-time low among members, as it's obvious that historic concessions are in store without the threat of a strike.
For Verizon workers, questions still linger about why we returned to work last year with no contract and agreed to onerous return-to-work stipulations. These included no amnesty for fired workers, a seven-day notice for striking, no limit on forced overtime for the first two weeks back on the job, and more.
In the intervening 12 months, no substantial progress has been made while the company has gone on an all-out offensive against members on the job. Forty members were fired for "strike-related activity" upon our return to work. Suspensions of stewards, forced overtime, and rotating schedules meant to punish the membership have fueled deep bitterness against the company.
In June, the company sent letters to every bargaining unit member's home explaining that in reaction to a recent alleged job action, Verizon would begin firing anyone suspected of taking part in any action that violated the contract's no-strike clause.
In essence, the company was calling the unions' bluff. They wanted to show that the unions would not escalate even in the face of mass firings. No firings have happened, but the point has been made that the unions can't be provoked into walking out.
An almost pathological fear of striking on the part of the highest level of the union seems to be dictating the course of negotiations.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
WHILE LABOR in both the public and private sectors has been under a full-on offensive on the part of both bosses and politicians, the flip side of that is the intense anger brewing among working people. We saw that anger explode in Wisconsin and the Occupy movement--and it was reflected in our strike last year.
Perhaps the unions' leaderships are assessing the willingness of members to return to the picket lines based on participation in the ongoing mobilization for the contract battle.
But that's not an accurate measure of the bitterness among members. That's because the union officials have actually undermined the contract campaign with its on-and-off approach to this fight.
Over the last year, the leadership has periodically made apocalyptic statements about the company declaring impasse and forcing a strike. Yet, weeks or months passed with no new information or mobilization. Then, once the mediation period began, members were given signals that a strike was imminent, only to be directed to get involved in the most lukewarm mobilization plan imaginable.
The result is that there is no sense of an overall strategy or feeling of intensification of the struggle. If the mobilization is falling flat, it's because members are looking for meaningful escalation--most obviously, the call for a strike, given the company's hard line against job actions. Workers are not interested in repeats of the same tired actions of the past year.
Unfortunately, the rank and file doesn't have the necessary level of self-organization to force the hand of the negotiating team by threatening independent action. But following the initiative of New York's CWA Local 1101, hundreds, if not thousands, of members across the bargaining unit have signed a letter to International President Larry Cohen calling for no concessions, and pledging to strike if necessary. That shows the potential to organize in the workplace for further action.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
THE CWA and IBEW have no choice but to face up this fight. Verizon's proposed contract is meant to fundamentally change the balance of forces within the workplace. If they succeed, the "needs of the business" will become the law of the land for union members.
For example, in the current contract, members temporarily transferred to locations over 35 miles from their home garage receive housing and allowances for food and laundry, plus a daily travel allowance based on mileage. The company wants to extend the radius to an outrageous 85 miles.
There are other attacks as well. Already, in the five boroughs of New York City, most technicians have been working every Saturday for almost four months--something the company wants to make a permanent feature of the contract. And even if Verizon doesn't get rid of its job security letter, new language like this will cause dramatic attrition as people will simply quit over onerous work conditions, and the union will be hollowed out.
Striking is not a guarantee of victory by any means. But not striking is a guarantee of defeat. With no deadlines and a gag order on negotiations, members are being left completely out of the loop on issues crucial to our lives and families. Democracy is nowhere to be found in the unions' approach to this process.
The CWA and IBEW leadership fears that we have no leverage because of Verizon Wireless cellular service--virtually all nonunion--as well as voice over Internet service. This technology is replacing traditional landlines, where the overwhelming majority of unionized workers are employed.
Even so, four years into an economic crisis, a major strike could be the rallying point for millions of people facing similar hardships. Verizon announced $1.8 billion in profits for the second quarter. If the membership isn't allowed to fight now for what is ours, the road ahead will only be worse.
The idea that we could shift the balance back in the members' direction without mobilizing to shut the company down is a foolish illusion.
Even the loss of pay, union dues and all the other casualties of long strikes are far outweighed by the losses we will suffer going down to defeat with nothing but a whimper. Because ultimately it's not about pay, it's about power. And power cannot be stored. It must be used or lost.