Still a "no" vote at Verizon

The 45,000 union workers at telecommunications giant Verizon are voting on a tentative agreement reached after more than a year without a contract. The company retreated from many of its harshest demands for concessions, but the proposal contains bitter compromises for union members, including on the centerpiece issue of health care--under the agreement, workers would have to contribute to insurance premiums for the first time.

The ratification vote comes after 15 months of negotiations and a two-week strike in August 2011. A number of union members believe the strike showed the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) could win support from the public and pressure the company to retreat. But CWA and IBEW leaders argue the company would use a strike as an opportunity to bust the union altogether. This belief was expressed in a letter to members at Verizon from CWA Vice President Chris Shelton of District 1, urging ratification of the contract.

Here, a Verizon worker responds to the arguments of union leaders--and explains the reasons for a "no" vote on the contract.

A number of union members believe last year's strike showed the potential to fight for more at VerizonA number of union members believe last year's strike showed the potential to fight for more at Verizon

AFTER 15 months of emotional struggle, it looks like our contract fight is in its endgame. Despite the strong words and strong feelings going back and forth, I think we all know the real enemy who is ripping us off is Verizon. Even though I am voting "no" on this contract, I believe in the good intentions and commitment of our leadership, even if I disagree with this strategy.

Saying "no" to this contract is more than mindless screaming or an accusation that our leaders are "sellouts." In his letter to CWA members at Verizon, Vice President Shelton is absolutely right that this contract is the best that could be gotten at the negotiating table--in fact, it's better than most of us dared to guess.

But saying "no" for me is about more than readjusting my budget to accommodate comparably low premium payments. It's about whether we have to accept the inevitable decline of our union power and a future of increasing concessions.

I believe this contract will be passed, possibly by a wide margin. The last 15 months have worn people down--our expectations have been ground down by a context of the end of collective bargaining in multiple states; by 100 percent N-days and the suspensions of two chief stewards; by lockouts and concessions all around us; by recession and horrible job options. And on and on it goes. The assault feels unending.

In his letter, Brother Shelton makes the point that we are in a different world than we were in 1989, and he is, of course, right. In '89, we did not enter into the concessionary bargaining downward spiral that so many other unions did. We have been living off the strength of that strike since then. But we also have been benefiting from being in a sector of the economy that is exploding in importance.

I am voting "no" because I reject the idea that the fruits of this explosion belong only to the corporate parasites who would undermine unionism and have a right-to-work nation. The death of copper should not be the death of our power.

This contract opens the door to the same downward spiral that everyone else has been in for years. Of course, our contract is better than anyone else's, but this is just the beginning. Perhaps we are falling slower, but we are falling. This is the controlled collapse of our power. You can measure us dollar-for-dollar against Con Ed or AT&T units, and it looks great, but their today is our tomorrow, and there is no bottom.

I am not voting "no" because I think strikes are easy or even that we would have gotten more money or a substantially better contract by striking. I am voting no to the idea that "there is no alternative." I am voting "no" to the idea that because technology is changing, unions will have to give way. Yes, the world of telecommunications is evolving, but that it will change entirely on management's terms was not handed down on stone tablets from above.

I am voting "no" to the idea that our strike would be unpopular because other people pay health care premiums.

We can't be afraid of public opinion; we need to shape public opinion. Did anyone think the NFL refs would look like heroes after being locked out? Who thought the Chicago Teachers Union could take on Rahm Emanuel and win? I am voting "no" because in order to turn the tide against the phenomenal gap, growing wider every day between the super-rich and the rest of us, someone will have to be first roll the dice and risk everything.

And I realize not everyone feels they are in a position to do that. I am not mad at my brothers and sisters who feel they would not recover from a strike and are voting "yes." I'm not mad at individuals who don't see a way out of the decline of the union and just want to put off the inevitable--how could I be mad at people who haven't been offered an alternative?

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BUT I believe it is disingenuous for the leadership of a national union that has seen one of its core industries transformed to throw up their hands and say, "There's nothing we can do, we've lost half our membership, this was the hardest negotiations ever." The decline of the membership is a reflection of the fact that the strategy in place for decades has been a failure. This contract is the fruit born of failing to organize our brothers and sisters across the industry. Our island is being washed away by the rising tide, but to say it was inevitable is dishonest.

I am voting against a failed strategy of controlled falling that squandered the opportunity to organize wireless after the strike of 2000, then worked past deadlines in the two following contracts, both of which contained two-tier concessions.

I am voting "no" to seeing this contract as just about my wallet. I'm voting "no" because I believe we could have contributed something to the turnaround in the labor movement we all want and need so badly, even if we didn't walk away the winner--although I am not convinced the company would not bring us back, seeing as we did strike and they did bring us back.

It is somewhat terrifying to imagine going on strike now, knowing that our leadership is against it. But people must vote their conscience. In reality, the union could always work under the imposed contract, which would be identical, save the three items Brother Shelton listed (rehiring, bonus and first raise), and fight in the courts.

These are hard times. I don't fault anyone for their vote, but I still hope to be part of the movement that reestablishes labor as a real force to be reckoned with--if not in this contract fight, then the next one.

Solidarity Forever.