We took a stand against corporate power

May 31, 2016

The strike by 39,000 Verizon workers--members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)--ended after 45 days with a tentative agreement announced late last week. Only partial details are available as union members prepare for a ratification vote. But strikers believe they've won a victory on balance--one made all the more significant by Verizon's pre-walkout arrogance in its demand for drastic concessions, and also by the widespread support for the strike that clearly put pressure on the company to fold on key demands.

According to a CWA summary of the agreement and other sources, the new contract would increase wages by 10.5 percent over four years. But the unions made a concession in agreeing to larger contributions from workers to pay for health insurance that will eat into the wage increase. On other issues, the unions appear to have made gains: Verizon has agreed to hire 1,500 workers, which will relieve chronic short-staffing and forced overtime; management retreated from its demand to be able to transfer workers throughout its system for weeks at a time; and the deal wins a first contract for 65 workers in the Verizon Wireless retail store side of the company.

Danny Katch interviewed a CWA shop steward in New York City about the high stakes in the strike and the lessons that the labor movement can take away from this battle.

CONGRATULATIONS ON the settlement of the strike. What's your initial reaction?

THERE ARE some obvious things that we know about from the summary of the agreement.

It looks like we held the line on forced transfers--although we don't have all the details--which is important not just from the point of view of the language of the contract, but the effect on people's daily lives. Verizon has been making us rearrange our lives to suit the "needs of the business" for years now, and this was our most successful pushback.

But a lot of the important things that happened because of the strike won't appear in the contract language, because they happened to the strikers themselves.

For a section of the membership, it was a transformative experience where we really felt our power. And it was obvious that this came from our personal participation and the widespread popular support for the strike--both the large-scale support we got from other unions and community groups, but also the constant thumbs up and honking horns we heard on picket lines, and even solidarity efforts that unaffiliated people participated in.

Verizon strikers united on the picket line in New York City
Verizon strikers united on the picket line in New York City

WHAT WAS the company hoping to accomplish with its contract demands, and why was management so confident it could win?

THE COMPANY was trying to reorganize itself into what it sees as a future model for capital-labor relations, where we work at their whim. The word for this is flexible labor, where you don't know where you'll be working from week to week or even day to day--just so the company doesn't have to hire more people. A lot of bosses see the independent contractor or freelancers' model as the wave of the future.

The one publicized detail of the contract we do know is that they're adding 1,500 new jobs inside the Verizon footprint--and that's exactly what they didn't want to do. They were confident they could win there because the unions are less than 25 percent of the workforce at Verizon--that's a steep decline from previous years due to the growth of the mostly nonunion Verizon Wireless division.

Unions have been declining overall, strikes of this scale are getting more rare, and they're aware that our strength in the workplace has been in decline for at least a decade. They've also drunk their own Kool-Aid in thinking they can just have their way because they're the ones with the money and the connections.

HOW WERE the unions able to stand up to a corporation that was bent on having its way?

THE THING the bosses never expect is how angry and smart the membership is. People went above and beyond during the course of this strike, and part of the reason people were willing to do that is that we knew we had the public at our back.

In other strikes, it's very common to see articles and news stories in the media about how inconvenient and problematic it is when workers go on strike. There wasn't a single story that I know about like that during the 45 days we were on strike. Instead, customers complained enormously about the incompetence--and occasional drunkenness and violence--on the part of the scabs they brought in to replace us.

The union gave a lead with a strategy of trying to evict out-of-state scabs from their hotels, but the membership took that opportunity and ran with it. People were getting up at four in the morning, and following scabs back to their hotels at 11 or 12 at night.

And members jumped on every opportunity for mass pickets and rallies. This created enormous momentum and confidence that we were having an impact. And it didn't deter people when an injunction was brought against the hotel pickets. That just sharpened people's anger at Verizon and the status quo of workers being at the bottom.

As my union brother said to me, "Every roadblock the company threw up, instead of slowing us down or stopping us, just fueled our anger and inspired us to find ways forward."

There was something else I've never seen before in the previous strikes I was involved in: Municipalities, starting in Long Island, passed resolutions in favor of not doing business with Verizon for the duration of the strike. Unions and community groups adopted picket lines at Verizon Wireless stores, and the May 5 day of action had pickets at around 400 stores nationwide.

The company bragged that it wouldn't miss an appointment or an earnings projection during the course of the strike. They were shown to be liars. Verizon's second-quarter earnings projections declined, and its stock price fell by 5 percent. For a company as heavily leveraged as Verizon, that was an unsustainable situation.

In this strike, we were able to turn what had been a weakness into a strength when unionized wireless retail workers joined the picket lines for the first time. We were more able to confront the Wireless stores because now they were potentially part of our bargaining unit.

It was our first breaching of the formerly impenetrable wall between wireless and wire-line. This gave the strike a deeper significance because it was clear that we were fighting for the future of the union, not just our own pensions or health benefits.

THERE ARE more details to come about the contract, but at this point, what's your assessment?

MY GUT feeling is that it's a defensive victory, with a couple of exciting potential advances.

Months ago, before the strike, the union had already offered to give back $200 million worth of concessions. So we were all expecting some cost-shifting on medical and probably pensions. But winning a first contract--and through a strike--for the Verizon Wireless workers and the addition of 1,500 jobs are exciting developments, not just for us, but for the entire labor movement.

I'm excited to think that I'll continue working where I've always worked or nearby because the company had to back off its demand for out-of-state transfers. And I'm thrilled to know Verizon got a black eye publicly and financially.

AS OF now, there's still a lot that we don't know about the fine print. How much more will know before you vote?

WE WILL get to look over what's called a memorandum of understanding (MOU), which is a bare-bones outline of the agreement.

What will be important is that certain articles of the contract will remain untouched, and probably won't even show up in the memorandum. However, this isn't a full accounting of the changes that will be included. People remember our last contract, which had a number of surprises that we didn't see in the MOU before we voted.

Also, small things can change in the final draft of the agreement. What's frustrating is that we took down the picket lines before anyone had seen anything official about the contract. We were immediately demobilized before the holiday weekend. There were a number of people who were angry to know that scabs were working over a holiday weekend while we were neither picketing nor earning any money.

It's very rare in the labor movement for the membership to read a fleshed-out contract before returning to work, but it's an admirable goal for a movement in need of democracy. The one example in recent memory was the Chicago teachers strike in 2012, where in a similar situation to us, the union kept the strike going to give their members time to read over the contract before their delegates voted on it.

That's great because it strengthens the trust between the members and the negotiating team, as well as telling the company that we're doing this on our schedule.

YOU'VE BEEN on strike before. What was different this time?


WELL PUT, but you can you say more?

I FEEL like we really flexed our muscles this time around. We saw what the membership is capable of. Instead of returning to work confused and frustrated, we're returning to work proud and with a potential for deep level of organization and militancy.

YOU WERE involved in forming a Verizon strike solidarity committee. Why did you help start that and what did it accomplish?

I DON'T want to take too much credit because as I've said before, when it's raining, no one needs to tell you to get an umbrella. Many people looked at this situation and saw an opportunity and a need to turn the anti-corporate sentiment--whose main outlet this past year has been the Bernie Sanders campaign--into a real confrontation with corporate power in the workplace and in the streets.

We were a collection of activists who saw ourselves as intermediaries for all the people and organizations which sympathized with the strike, but had never interacted with picket lines before. We helped individuals join adopt-a-store projects, and we helped local unions adopt stores themselves, give donations, host workplace informational meetings with strikers and build a social media presence.

It was an opportunity for a handful of rank-and-file Verizon activists to bring to bear our experience for a broader audience and also interact more with the left and progressive forces.

We had our first large public event scheduled for Friday, May 27--the day the strike wrapped up--which turned into an assessment and celebration. Overwhelmingly, people were committed to channeling this energy into support for future strikes in New York.

WHAT DO you expect from the company when you go back to work?

IT'S HARD to say. There are rumors that their most hated program for surveillance and discipline will be gone. That would be an enormous weight off the rank and file's shoulders.

There will be pettiness and vindictiveness from the company, and probably an enormous amount of overtime--both as retribution and as a necessary cleanup operation for the mess made by the idiots they tried to replace us with. I'm hopeful the membership overall will stick together and not look for individual solution to these problems, but instead find ways to react to keep the balance in our favor.

WHAT DO you think this strike can do for the labor movement?

THIS SHOULD put to bed the question of whether or not strikes can win.

There were many factors that went into the strike, and it would be easy to say that it was the social media presence or the popular support or the fear of paying unemployment on the 49th day that led the company to settle. But the main thing was the strike itself--it was the disruption of work. It was the declining revenue, both at Wireless and landline, that allowed all those other factors to come into play.

We still have a lot of frontiers as a movement we need to cross, like how to confront the limitless restrictions that companies can bring against us using labor laws, plus deeper issues of social justice and inequality. But I'm confident that this strike provides solid ground not only for our own future struggles, but for other workers to stand on.

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