Verizon wants to bust the union

August 3, 2015

Dominic Renda, chief steward of Communications Workers of America Local 1105, explains what's at stake in negotiations with Verizon.

THE CONTRACT expired between Verizon and 39,000 members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) on August 1. For now, no strike has been called, and employees have been told to report to work.

Despite $18 billion in profits over the last 18 months, despite the top five Verizon executives pulling in a combined total of $44.4 million last year, with CEO Lowell McAdam alone making $18.3 million, and despite Verizon being the 15th largest corporation in America in 2014, management still wants major concessions from the workforce that built this company to what it is today.

CWA's website details Verizon's most retrogressive, egregious and insulting demands: "deep cuts to pension benefits, skyrocketing increases in medical costs and the complete elimination of job security."

Verizon has already gotten away with too much as far as mistreating their workforce. In the prior contracts negotiated within the last 12 years, Verizon has implemented attacks on job security, pensions and health benefits. Since 2003, the job security language that protects workers from layoffs no longer applies to anyone hired that year or afterward.

A member of the Communications Workers of America rallies for a fair contract at Verizon
A member of the Communications Workers of America rallies for a fair contract at Verizon (Dominic Renda)

The most recent contract negotiated in 2012 required for the first time that employees pay in to their medical benefits. That concession was particularly humiliating because a four-month-long-strike in 1989 prevented the company's attempt at that time to force members to pay into their benefits. Another particularly heinous giveback of the recently expired contract is that any members hired in 2012 or later will not receive a pension when they retire, but only have the option of a 401(k) plan, which puts their savings at the mercy of the ups and downs of the stock market.

The main reason for these unnecessary concessions is that over the past two decades, this telecommunications company has gotten more powerful through deregulation, mergers and a Walmart-like obsession with keeping Verizon Wireless mostly non-union, while the union has gotten weaker because the copper home and business phone lines and fiber optic services (known as Fios) that its members built and maintained are no longer a priority to this corporation.

Although copper phone service and Fios are profitable, none other than CEO Lowell McAdam asserted that "we are going to kill the copper." Since 2008, Verizon has sold 10 million of its copper and Fios lines to other companies. Whatever company officials claim, they want to get out of providing copper and Fios service so that they can focus on the more profitable wireless business and avoid the union that handles Fios and copper service, as well as get out of a regulated copper industry.

Fewer consumers have a traditional copper home phone line now than they did over a decade ago. In 2003, 4.2 percent of U.S. households used only wireless service. By 2014, that number jumped to 44 percent. However, the home phone is not an obsolete technology like a cassette player. Copper lines are still the only form of communication that Verizon provides that will work during an electrical outage. Verizon used to take out advertisements reminding customers of this important feature of home phones, but long stopped these ads because it intended to become a "wireless-only" corporation.

Verizon's hell-bent motivation to "kill the copper" could possibly lead to a catastrophe on the level of then-president Bush Jr.'s appalling handling of Hurricane Katrina. If copper lines are gone, there will be no means of calling for emergency services during an electrical outage. Although such outages are rare, downtown New York City was without electricity for an entire week after Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012. In 2003, entire parts of the northeastern and midwestern U.S. States and the Canadian province of Ontario had a blackout.

THERE'S STILL cause for optimism that the tide can turn against Verizon's corporate greed. There have been some recent breakthroughs in organizing wireless workers. Last year, sales and customer service reps at six Brooklyn retail stores voted for the CWA to represent them. Workers at an Everett, Massachusetts, wireless store followed suit shortly after the victorious Brooklyn vote.

And although the union membership declined in copper and Fios, when the CWA and IBEW waged a two-week strike against Verizon in 2011, it was the nation's largest strike for the preceding four years.

The union still has an uphill battle in this current contract fight with Verizon. There are a number of steps that can be taken to help ensure a good contract--one that we work hard for and deserve. Despite being deep into our own struggle at the moment, we still need to support other workers' struggles, such as the Fight for $15.

Big wins for unions in the 1930s is what sparked a nationwide increase in union membership. If we can help other unions win their struggles, we can hasten the day for a revitalized labor movement, which will make for an easier climate by which to rebuild the CWA and IBEW's power. CWA already has a history of such support, such as being on picket lines during the 1997 UPS strike, supporting locked-out Con Edison workers in 2012, and being at the rallies for Fight for $15 earlier this year.

At our workplaces, we need to continue to wear red on Thursdays; engage in informational picketing to let the public know about Verizon's callous treatment of employees and consumers; continue to protest, march and rally, like we did at the inspiring rally of thousands of IBEW/CWA members in July at Verizon's headquarters in lower Manhattan; and wage a work-to-rule campaign while at the job. We also need to continue to save money for a strike or lockout, either of which is still possible until we get a new contract.

None of these actions by themselves will be the key to victory. To use a boxing analogy, one punch rarely knocks out the opponent; a combination of punches over the duration of the fight is what wears the other boxer down.

Verizon is on an all-out assault to break the union. No one can guarantee that we will win if we fight this corporate behemoth, but we will certainly lose if we don't fight back. We must not accept union-busting. As my local president often says, "In unity, there is strength!"

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