What can we do to win the war at Verizon?

May 19, 2016

The 39,000 workers on strike at Verizon, members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), have been on the picket line for five weeks. It's the largest strike in the U.S. in five years--since the last walkout against the telecommunications giant--and the stakes are high, both for the workers directly involved and the labor movement in general.

Danny Katch talked to a CWA shop steward in New York City about the strengths and weaknesses of the strike to this point--and what direction the struggle will need to take in the weeks to come for the unions to prevail.

FIVE WEEKS into the strike, what is the mood like among union members?

THE INITIAL burst of energy has subsided, but people are determined and holding strong. There's been a lot of energy, and I think a lot of that has come from the union trying to be innovative in terms of how to deal with the scab situation.

There are about 20,000 people doing our work, including both managers and out-of-state contractors. People's spirits have been kept high by the barrage of videos of these completely untrained people doing ridiculous things taken by union members as they follow scabs around.

More importantly, the union began to focus on the out-of-state contractors who were staying in hotels. Because work is being dispatched at the hotels, we consider them work locations, and in many cases in the outer boroughs, they're also housing work equipment, like line trucks. We were able to get the scabs kicked out of a bunch of places.

Unfortunately, the company went to a judge to get an injunction on May 9, and even though only six hotels are named in the injunction, there's been a complete shutdown of what were called "scab wake-up calls," where hundreds of members would rally outside the hotel in the early morning. It really lifts your spirits to see the scabs get evicted and have to sleep in their vehicles on the street.

Striking Verizon workers take to the streets in New York City
Striking Verizon workers take to the streets in New York City (New York State Nurses Association)

There's a real determination despite the setback of the injunction. It's helped a lot to know that the public is on our side--when we're picketing the Verizon Wireless stores, and we see customers who planned on going into the store turn away or random people passing honk the horn or give you the thumbs up.

The level of support is very different from past strikes because so many people are pissed about corporate greed and see Verizon as one more corporate criminal among many.

THE COMPANY cut off your health care on May 1. Is this different from previous strikes and what effect has that had?

IN THE three strikes I've been out in, we weren't out long enough for that to happen. It's been said that fear of getting cut off health care was a major factor in our going back to work without a contract in the 2011 strike. They definitely did cut off health care in the longer strikes of earlier years.

This has driven home the stakes of the fight, as many of our brothers and sisters are the main, if not the only, breadwinner in the house.

AS YOU'VE mentioned, Verizon workers have had many strikes. What is similar and what is different about this one?

WHAT'S SIMILAR is that the company is always on a drive to get more for less out of its workforce. We made historic concessions on health care in the 2011-12 negotiations. What's different is that they see weakness, and they want to drive it home because we're now only 11 percent of Verizon employees overall.

Verizon is a very different company than Ma Bell, which was a monopoly in telecom in the 1980s. Verizon wants to be a major player in broadband and entertainment and is one of the main opponents of net neutrality. It wants a workforce more in line with Comcast, the largest media conglomerate in America, which is driven by an independent contractor model.

But like I said earlier, we have the public on our side in a way I'm not sure we ever had before--maybe since 1971, when people were mobilized around all kinds of social justice issues, labor included.

THE PERCENTAGE of union employees at Verizon is lower than ever because of the growing nonunion wireless business. This is the first strike that includes Wireless workers at six stores in Brooklyn and one in Massachusetts, who are striking to win their first contract. What's the significance of this?

TO CLARIFY one thing, there have been a very small number of Wireless technical workers in the union--under 100 outside New York. The significance of the Wireless retail workers organizing is that it's a beachhead into Verizon's nonunion storefront operations.

Retail workers at Verizon, like everywhere, have low wages, irregular hours and weak or no benefits, and they rely heavily on commissions, which is a boss's dream because it incentivizes competition between workers.

A major question for the labor movement is whether it can organize more workers in retail and service, some of the fastest growing sectors of the economy. Winning a first contract by striking would be an exciting development that we haven't seen for years, and it's hard to imagine a group of workers in a better situation to do that given that they have 39,000 allies at their back.

SOMETHING YOU hear often on the picket line among Verizon workers is that we have to stay out "one day longer." It's a slogan that the union promotes. What's your take on that idea?

WHEN A brother or sister says to me, "One day longer, one day stronger," I'm 100 percent behind that, because that's the level of determination we need to take on this company.

But I also know that slogan became popular in the 1980s, in a generation of strikes that were long painful grinds and often ended in deep, painful concessions. Of course we have to last, but we can't do that without a strong confrontational approach that continues to draw people in to our side.

What mobilizes our allies is the excitement of seeing a group of people standing up for themselves against the endless givebacks. It's one thing to be "one day longer and one day stronger" on a picket line with hundreds of your co-workers and supporters. It's another to say that when we all have to take other jobs and our pickets are reduced to a a few people out there symbolically, with only token involvement by the members.

It's great that the union is asking supporters to stand with us by adopting a picket store, but if they think our allies can substitute for the membership when people have to get other jobs, it probably won't work. So we can't just wait to outlast a corporation with billions of dollars in reserves.

HISTORICALLY, MANY of labor's biggest strike victories came from shutting down the company's operations. Is that possible today?

WE'RE WORKING in tough conditions, with a weaker labor movement and harsh anti-labor laws. You basically have the legal right to strike but not to have any effect on the company. I don't think we're going to get very far without going beyond the bounds of what's legally acceptable. But we have to do that in a smart way.

A big part of the union's strategy is to tarnish the Verizon brand and attack them on the consumer end, not on the production side. We've done amazing outreach work to draw in allies around the country. On the May 5 day of action, there were pickets at 400 stores nationally--far beyond the Northeast area covered by the strike.

But in what could be a long struggle, can we damage the brand enough to stop Verizon's union busting?

This is where the question of scabbing looms so large, and why the injunction and the union's interpretation of it is such a setback. The company is paying scabs a lot of money to come from Southern states and live in hotels. Union members have been making it a very uncomfortable experience: Not getting enough sleep, not knowing where you're spending the night.

This can create a climate where it's much harder for the company to recruit scabs. But the injunction gives the company a free hand to recruit and house people however they want.

It's also a blow to our morale. It's a powerful feeling when hundreds of strikers get together to win a clear victory by evicting scabs from a hotel--more powerful than the sometimes tedious although often hilarious experience of mobile picketing, where small groups of people follow and track the actions of teams of scabs.

I don't know how many members have fully processed what's at stake with this injunction. We got a lot of momentum from the hotel pickets, and it's not clear where that momentum is going to come from now. Mobile picketing is important but it rarely shuts down worksites, so we have to keep thinking about things that take us in that direction.

Like when there's a major cable failure, do we bring hundreds of people out to prevent to the repairs? Or when luxury high-rises are going up, are we shutting down the running of new cables?

It's great that there's a consumer boycott. There should be. The union is also working with other carriers to get union members off Verizon service. Those are great support strategies, but they can't be the main strategy.

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