When a good contract is a missed opportunity

August 14, 2018

Amy M., a Verizon worker and CWA member in Queens, looks at what was won and what was lost in the ratification of an agreement to extend the current contract.

MORE THAN 35,000 union members at Verizon ratified a four-year extension of our current contract, won after a seven-week strike in 2016 that brought Verizon to its knees with our mass pickets, “scab wake-up calls” and wide public support.

That contract included a number of advances for the union, reversing the trend of offshoring call center jobs and settling the first contracts in the new Wireless retail divisions.

This spring, Verizon came to the unions — Communication Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) — asking to start bargaining early, with only three issues on the table: compensation, contract duration and health care. As a result, one year before the expiration of the 2016 contract, we are looking at five years of stability and continuity.

Wage increases of more than 11 percent are above the cost of medical premium increases, meaning that the bargaining team can present this as an outright slam-dunk.

A Verizon worker repairs cables in lower Manhattan
A Verizon worker repairs cables in lower Manhattan

As one negotiating team member explained at an informational session on the agreement, it is a mathematical extension of the 2016 agreement — as if they went back in time and bargained an eight-year deal, not four. And given the victory that brought it into being in 2016, how could this be less good than that deal?

WHAT’S different is that in 2018, Verizon is still hurting from the strike.

Since the settlement, across the footprint, the company shifted from an all-stick strategy to an awful lot of carrots. Increased sales incentives have replaced the “Quality Assurance Review” program of harassing technicians in the name of increased productivity.

The company launched a six-month trial — which continues two years later — of capping the number of Saturdays we were assigned to work for straight time, an enormous complaint for years leading up to the strike.

Months after the strike, the company launched a sunshine and hand-holding initiative called Performance Plus. Complete with preschool-level team-building exercises, it focused on communication and mutual understanding between union stewards and local bosses.

While there are still the occasional tin-pot dictator managers intent on harassing people, they no longer represent the tone of the company toward employees overall.

Meanwhile, Verizon has been working to rebuild its brand in the public eye after mass pickets at retail locations. It has reversed course and is fulfilling commitments to build the fiber network in predominantly urban and poor neighborhoods.

All of this is a welcome change after years of insecurity and stress on the job.

The company clearly wants peace. Poised to launch the next generation 5G wireless network, the company needs a workforce that shows up and works. A rumor has also been circulating that Verizon wants to get out of landline altogether, and a hostile workforce makes that proposition much harder.

Either way, the company is the one who needs peace now. This is a very different environment from 2016, when the company tried to tear our contract apart.

The negotiating team saw the limited bargaining this time as a plus because the company couldn’t attack job security or pensions, but the truth is they didn’t have to. We already gave up concessions on those areas: members hired after 2005 don’t have the same job security, and after 2008, they don’t have a pension — just a 401(k).

In addition to this, the company currently has hundreds of temporary hires building the fiber network. In past contract negotiations, temps would be made permanent. Limited bargaining meant that the issue lingers, leaving those workers and future temps hanging in the wind.

THAT’S WHAT makes this contract, good as it is, a real missed opportunity. We haven’t had leverage like this in years, since the beginning of the fiber build, and it is unlikely many of us will work here long enough to see it again.

This contract, like many before it, accepts two tiers in core elements of the agreement. Union members are not unified by the contract — we are divided.

The union has placed the financial stability of the union above the future of its membership, which in 20 years will be without the job security and pensions of the current members.

The founding principle of a union should be to stand together as one, defending each other across generations, not institutionalizing an “I got mine” mentality.

Why we didn’t fight to undo those divisive tiers is a question even members who are voting “yes” are asking. Yet the mood is resignation. Even among temps in some places, the numbers of “yes” votes are a strong majority — the enthusiastic endorsement of the leadership makes any alternative seem impossible.

It is unfortunate that our union, the CWA, isn’t taking this opportunity to take the fight to the bosses. In light of the teacher strike wave this past spring and an overall higher level of strikes than at any time since 1989, this should be a time to take the long view, not settle for stability.

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