A rising sea of red against Verizon

April 21, 2016

Mark Friedman and Ruth Hurley report on the latest developments in the Verizon strike, and argue why this is a crucial fight for the entire U.S. labor movement.

NEARLY 40,000 Verizon workers entered the second week of a strike that began April 13 after 10 months of working without a contract. These workers are engaged in one of the most important battles the labor movement has seen in recent years.

Coming out swinging, the members of Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) from Massachusetts to Virginia have hit the streets, picket lines, VZ Wireless stores and hotels housing scabs in the last week.

The "sea of red" took over midday Manhattan in a march of nearly 14,000 that was joined by Bernie Sanders a day before the Democratic primary in New York. His high profile at picket lines and union halls has helped cast Verizon as the poster child of the kind of corporate rule that the Sanders' campaign skewers.

It is the largest U.S. strike since 2011--the last time Verizon workers struck--and it is taking on a corporate adversary with a brutal agenda. Verizon's aim to turn its unionized workers into a flexible (as in powerless and disposable) labor force reflects the wider goals of corporate America for all workers in the 21st century.

Striking Verizon workers on the picket line
Striking Verizon workers on the picket line (Kristy Leibowitz)

On the other side, the CWA and IBEW are fighting to uphold a set of standards for compensation, job security and workplace dignity that the rest of the labor movement can rally behind. This speaks to the importance of solidarity and why all workers should support this union struggle.

Verizon epitomizes the corporate greed all too dominant that fiercely demands workers accept less with lowered expectations. It is a company raking in profits of $1.8 million every month that is asking many of the workers who created those riches to accept major concessions in their pensions, health benefits and job security.

Most alarming is the company's demand for contractual changes that would allow them to transfer workers anywhere in the company footprint--from Virginia to Massachusetts--for months at a time, which would be incredibly damaging to the stability and family lives of workers.

This demand reflects the pressure Verizon feels competing with cable and internet providers like Comcast, which use "independent contractors" almost as much as in-house employees for installation and repair.

If it sounds like Verizon is trying to break the back of the unions, that's because it is. The striking workers are almost entirely in the company's landline division--working on copper line maintenance and installations of the FIOS fiber optic network--in addition to call center workers.

Verizon has been in a years-long process of shifting its concentration to its wireless division, which is almost entirely non-union. (A small number of Verizon Wireless workers in Brooklyn and Everett, Massachusetts, have joined CWA and are also out on strike.)

This strike marks an important line in the sand that has been many years in the making. The last strike at Verizon in 2011 lasted two weeks before the unions went back to work without a contract. All signs indicate that this strike may last a lot longer.

The stakes for both sides are tremendous: can Verizon remake its workforce to fit into a future modeled on Uber, and can the union--now down to 11 percent of the total company--maintain relevance?

RETURNING TO the bargaining table on April 19, the company's arrogance and ignorance was on full display, as they refused to move off of any of their concessionary demands.

Verizon has sent letters to every striker's home explaining their right to scab. The Facebook support group Stand Up to Verizon posted a thread soliciting reactions to the letter, which ranged from burning to rude gestures to composting.

The company letters "are a new low even for them," says Dominic Renda, a chief shop steward in CWA Local 1105. "Any members considering scabbing on the strike should realize that scabbing increases the chance that we lose the strike, which increases the chances that we lose job security, which increases the chance that we lose our jobs."

While there are reports of individuals crossing the picket line, the bulk of work is being done--or not done--by a combination of managers and off-the-street hires with little or no experience.

One Queens technician posted a minute-by-minute accounting of a scab's work day, which was dominated by sitting in their truck and scratching their head. According to the customer, it was their third day there. YouTube is full of painfully funny service calls.

This speaks to the weakness of the company in the coming weeks, and the need for a decisive win in the short term. Because fiber is a new technology, there is not a base of workers proficient in service and installation, either within management or in society in general.

However, that is only a temporary situation. It will be important for the unions to press their advantage while scabs are at their most inexperienced and incompetent.

The company has attempted to legally disrupt and control picket lines, using the excuse of protecting their scabs from allegedly intimidating behavior from strikers, and they have won an injunction limiting pickets in Pennsylvania.

On the other side, CWA Local 1101 has succeeded in driving out-of-town scabs out of the midtown Manhattan hotels the company is paying for. A couple hundred rowdy members targeted the Sheraton Hotel, and after a daylong mass picket got the support of the New York City Hotel Trades Council, which stated its members would not cross the line, thereby threatening the running of the hotel itself.

The next day, with several hundred members, it took just over three hours to get the same result at the Renaissance Hotel, and the following day, at the Westin.

"There are a couple points that are important about this," says 1101 steward Javier Espinosa. "We are getting support from other unions not crossing our lines, which puts pressure on the hotels themselves. It also sends a message to Verizon that multiple unions are working with CWA to fight for a contract, and it sends a message to Verizon that we are relentless at chasing them down and shutting down there operations where ever they go."

THE FACT that this is the largest strike since the last contract at Verizon reflects the weakness of U.S. unions, particularly in the private sector. The most critical strike in the intervening period was the Chicago Teachers Union, which was a model of how unions can fly a flag of social justice and not just fight for bread-and-butter contract issues.

Verizon's unions have a unique opportunity to connect to the public, both because of the ongoing concentration of wealth in society (which Sanders' campaign has crystalized) and because Verizon has flatly refused to deliver its service in some areas, many of which are predominantly Black and Brown.

With high-speed Internet being the modern equivalent of telephone service--some even argue electricity--Verizon has compounded what is called the "digital divide," leaving lower income and non-white communities without home access to service. In New York, ongoing efforts building up to the contract highlighted how neighborhoods have been skipped, despite company claims to providing access.

But the central focus for the unions has to be aiming to shut down the company's operations to damage their bottom line and force them off of their concessions. That is a fight that can win public support.

Renda says that workers on his picket line have been taking the initiative to organize themselves to picket various wireless stores. That will be key, along with continued rallies and mobile pickets of scab workers that expose Verizon's disregard for customers.

With the end of the Democratic primaries in New York and Pennsylvania, the boost of the Sanders campaign will dry up, and it will be up to Verizon workers and their supporters to keep up the pressure.

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