Verizon strikers stand strong in the capital

Leonard Klein reports from Washington, D.C., on a demonstration by striking Verizon workers and fellow unionists that marched to the White House.

Verizon strikers and their young supporters take to picket lines in Washington, D.C. (Leonard Klein | SW)Verizon strikers and their young supporters take to picket lines in Washington, D.C. (Leonard Klein | SW)

CHANTING "HEY Verizon, you can't hide! We can see your greedy side!" 800 striking workers and supporters from more than a dozen unions across the East Coast rallied in Washington, D.C., on May 19 to protest Verizon's corporate greed and union busting, as the strike entered its sixth week.

Wearing their now-familiar red shirts, the strikers--members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)--picketed for an hour outside of a Verizon Wireless store on F Street in downtown Washington. The picket line stretched an entire block from 13th Street to 14th Street.

Children with signs reading "Verizon Took My Health Insurance" joined their parents in chanting, "Hey hey, ho ho, Lowell has got to go!" They were calling out Verizon CEO Lowell C. McAdam, who has no problem paying himself $18 million while attacking the living standards of Verizon workers, retirees and their families.

Verizon cut off health benefits to the 39,000 strikers and their families on May 1, hoping to break the spirits of union members and induce them to cross the picket lines. But as one 16-year Verizon worker said, "The mood on the picket line is still strong. We are out here fighting for everybody."

Indeed, many unionized workers see the Verizon strike, the largest in the U.S. in years, as a key battle to protect living standards and benefits, for Verizon workers as well as the entire labor movement.

Supporters from the National Nurses Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE HERE, Service Employees International Union, American Federation of Teachers, DC Nurses Association, Washington-Baltimore News Guild, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and others joined the downtown picket and march to the White House.

When strikers and supporters from up and down the East Coast took to the streets, they were greeted by honks of support from some evening commuters, as well as raised fists of solidarity from pedestrians and tourists.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE MAY 19 Day of Action targeted the White House just days after U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez called in mediator Allison Beck to get a reluctant Verizon to come back to the bargaining table.

While two local CWA and IBEW bargaining committee members addressed the closing rally in Lafayette Park, they did not have any news, as the union and Verizon have agreed not to comment on negotiations while in mediation.

That didn't stop a local bargainer from taking a shot at the executive snobbery of Verizon management. "Verizon tries to make us feel ashamed [at the bargaining table] because we are union and not part of the elite," the striker, said pointing to the crowd. "We have not felt that because of you!"

Other rally speakers highlighted the importance of the stand taken by the CWA and IBEW against Verizon's union busting. "We need you for the labor movement and the American workers," said Donna Edwards of the Maryland state and District of Columbia AFL-CIO. "You are fighting for everyone."

Many union officials and local politicians repeated the theme that the workers needed to stay strong "one day longer," but David Stevens of ATU Local 689 emphasized a different approach by asking the rally to chant a famous quote from the great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass: "Without struggle, there is no progress! Power concedes nothing without a demand!"

Early union tactics, such as picketing outside New York City hotels where Verizon was housing scabs and dispatching work were proving effective as rattling the replacement workers. But Verizon found a judge willing to place an injunction against the practice.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE CWA and IBEW have been using mobile pickets, social media and picketing Verizon Wireless stores to stop or report on shoddy scab work and seek solidarity from Verizon customers and the public.

On May 21, in a move to counter Verizon's message about "greedy strikers" who only want to make more money, the unions began airing a radio ad called "The System is Rigged." The opening line points out the common lot of all workers: "The rich get richer while the rest of us struggle to get by."

The unions have also begun personalizing the strike. On May 21, a Kids & Families Day of Action took place across the country, with children on the picket lines telling how Verizon's greed it hurting them and their parents.

This was also seen at the May 19 rally. The most moving and inspirational moments of the rally came as two new employees took the mic to say why they were out on the picket line.

Willy T. Perkins, brought his wife, 2-year-old daughter and 1-year old twins onto the stage. The 2-year-old led the call-and-response chant, "What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now!"

"This is my first year," Willy said, "and I am out here with union brothers and sisters. We need to remain united. When Verizon took away our health care, they took away health care from five people on the this stage."

Eve Loch, a call center worker and another first-year employee, explained that Verizon doesn't give new employees time off, even for extreme illness. Eve became so sick in 2015 that she required emergency surgery. Verizon's response? To formally discipline her.

"But the union fought it and made the company remove the incident from my record," Eve said. "Funds are low. I am currently breaking my lease and moving into a friend's place. But I am 100 percent union. I am going to stay on the picket line!"

The energy and resolve of CWA and IBEW members like Eve and Willy are needed if the strikers are going to turn back Verizon's attack on their unions, benefits and working conditions.