The strike that challenged a giant and won

April 13 marks the one-year anniversary of the start of a nationwide strike at Verizon that won important gains for Verizon workers. Danny Katch talked to Dominic Renda, a call center worker and member of Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 1105, and Amy Muldoon, a technician and shop steward in CWA Local 1106, about their memories of the strike, and some of the lessons it can hold for workers and others fighting to defend their rights under the Trump presidency.

Striking Verizon workers take to the streets of Manhattan in 2016 (Communications Workers of America | Facebook)Striking Verizon workers take to the streets of Manhattan in 2016 (Communications Workers of America | Facebook)

WHAT WERE you striking for?

Dom: Verizon wanted to eliminate our job security. We had known they wanted to lay us off by the thousands since 2002, when they did lay us off by the thousands and the union took the company to court, won that battle and those thousands of employees got their jobs back. So Verizon has wanted to lay us off since then, and they need to eliminate our job security language to be able to do that.

Amy: They wanted to reorganize their workforce to be more "flexible." They wanted to be able to transfer us, lay us off and basically be able to change everything in the contract: vacation days, personal days, overtime regulation, right of transfer. Then they wanted to change all our benefits and protections as well. So it was kind of from the bottom up that they wanted to rewrite the whole thing.

WHAT WAS the result of the strike?

Dom: We beat them back on their attempt to eliminate job security. We won restrictions on outsourcing--there was quite a bit of our work that we got back, which was pretty much unprecedented. How often do you hear of outsourced work coming back anywhere, whether it be a union location or a non-union location?

We won the creation of 1,000 new jobs, and that was also something that pleasantly surprised me because I think a lot of us didn't see that coming. We had lost about half our membership over the years as a result of people quitting, getting fired or passing away, and Verizon hadn't replaced the people that had left. So this was the first time that we got new people hired in a long time.

Amy: People talk about the couple of years in the run-up to the contract expiration as the worst years in their careers at Verizon. Morale was incredibly low, attendance was terrible. In the last six months before the strike, there was the imposition of a disciplinary program called the Quality Assurance Review (QAR), which meant that you could be questioned about literally every minute of your day.

It was used to fish for any violation that a technician might have incurred in the course of their workday. And even if they didn't find anything, these interviews would go on for six hours--some people were repeatedly interviewed. In Manhattan they racked up 700 days of suspension while the QAR was in effect. It was just horribly demoralizing and people felt harassed and insulted.

So I think dignity on the job was one of the things that people felt they were fighting for and that fueled a lot of anger on the picket lines. And QAR was gotten rid of in the course of the strike.

They haven't gotten rid of all the jerk managers, that's for sure. But I think that upper management has realized that they want to stick with the wire line side of the business because wireless is not the cash cow that it was two years ago. So they want peace, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we won the strike.

They could have had peace on their terms, which was a terrified, disorganized workforce. But now we're seeing peace on our terms, which means less mandatory Saturdays and less harassment. And the QAR has been eliminated and been replaced by something called Performance Plus--we don't fully know what that means yet, but we do know that we haven't seen people being called in week after week and their entire day being gone over with a fine toothed comb.

We've also seen more leniency on disciplinary cases. Where before managers might have felt entitled to just send someone home for 30 days, we've now seen cases in my own garage where that hasn't happened. So even though the strike was a real hardship, it did have positive benefits for our working lives.

Dom: Also, the most inspirational part of this contract victory was Verizon Wireless workers in Brooklyn winning their first contract--they had been negotiating for two years prior to that. That was huge because now we can use that to organize and mobilize other wireless workers.

DID WINNING the strike make a difference in the daily quality of your life?

Dom: Absolutely it did. Before our strike happened I felt like the union was going to be in a perpetual decline until it didn't exist anymore, and our jobs were just going to be eliminated somehow. I remember talking to my family and saying I might have to move into your basement again because I don't know how much longer I'm going to have a job.

So I went from concerned about whether I'm even going to work for Verizon in the future to having a sense of security that we can reverse this tide of decline that's been going on for years with our union.

CAN YOU give me one particularly strong memory from the strike that still sticks with you to this day?

Dom: Just a lot of uncertainty. You don't know you're going to win the strike when it's happening; you don't know how long it's going to go on. So it's just the uncertainty, but also the inspiration, because so many other workers--janitors and random members of the public--were coming out to support us. So even though there was a lot of uncertainty, there was a lot of cause for hope.

Amy: The two things--I'm going to cheat--were being in my doctor's office and getting a phone call that the police had just escorted scab vehicles through an active picket line, which just inflamed people to no end. The company was bringing out-of-state contractors up with their own equipment and putting them up in the outer borough hotels and a mass picket went to greet them in the morning. It was one of those expressions of people's pent-up rage finally boiling over. You could see all the forces in society that wanted us to lose lined up on one side, and to know that we triumphed against that is pretty incredible.

The other thing I remember was being part of a solidarity event the day that the contract was settled, and just the feeling of excitement that we didn't know what was in the contract, but we were pretty certain that we had won. And it was a different feeling than any of us had had before. Because it was really our victory: we knew we fought for it and we earned every letter of that contract.

YOU'VE BOTH been on strike before. What was different this time among the members?

Dom: I really was impressed with a lot of members' eagerness to picket at Verizon Wireless store locations, where we were organizing a boycott. I was also impressed with our membership--that we didn't fall into management's traps. Management had sent us all letters on how to scab. People literally burned those letters and got creative on how to destroy them.

Amy: We had a terrible strike in 2011 that was floundering and then cut short. There was a resentment and distrust in the union, and then there was a change in the leadership, and I think they really won the respect and trust of the membership. Part of the way they did that was they gave people the room to fight and organize on their own terms. That experience for some individuals was transformative, and I think it healed our union in a lot of ways. People feel much more confident and less cynical post-strike than they did pre-strike.

THE STRIKE happened in the spring of 2016, at the same time as Trump was running for president on the theme of the decline of blue collar America. But while the strike made news while it was happening, why do you think it didn't have more of an affect on the national conversation about how to defend decent working-class jobs?

Dom: Even while our strike was going on, it didn't get the media attention that we deserved. Our strike was the largest strike in the United States for five years prior. There was a You Tube channel called Redacted Tonight that said our strike got less coverage than Donald Trump's tweet about a taco bowl.

Working people don't necessarily have confidence in their own self-activity. So even though our strike beat back a huge corporate behemoth, it doesn't translate into the entire working class realizing that they have power again. And that's why I feel like it's important to remember the strike one year later to remember that working people do have power and that they can take on huge corporate forces that make over a billion dollars in profit every month and we can win.

Amy: Who would remind people of the lessons of our strike? Trump? Clinton? It's up to people like us to keep that memory alive. Too many people still think that change is going to come from above. So until the working class movement in this country has more of its own institutions and more of its own voice, it's going to feel like these things happen in isolation from each other. But I was on a picket line today at Spectrum and the people there remember our strike very well. So I think that for people who are forced to be in a situation of fighting for their jobs, it is a relevant lesson.

My favorite strike action of the Trump presidency thus far was the strike of the taxi workers who refused to go to JFK during the first go attempt at the Muslim travel ban. I don't think we can take credit for that action, but these things provide reference points for people who are trying to figure out what's the most powerful way you can push back.

WHAT LESSONS can we take from the strike for the Trump era?

Dom: I hope that people learn from our strike and use the strike weapon to their advantage, whether it be at their workplace or for whatever cause their fighting for like LGBTQ rights or immigrant rights or against war. I just hope the strike weapon is used more because it is effective.

Amy: One lesson is, don't drink management's Kool-Aid. Donald Trump thinks that he's utterly unbeatable, to the point that he doesn't recognize losing when it happens. Verizon thought they could replace a skilled workforce with people who they trained for a week who never worked on fiber, and look how that turned out. It was a combination of overreach on the part of management--and every time we turn on the news we see overreach on the part of the administration--and then when people take it in their own hands to push back, it's possible to win.