Strike, Interrupted

The first of 45,000 Verizon workers went back to work last night after union representatives reached an agreement to end, at least for now, the largest American strike in four years. The standoff -- which started when Verizon tried to roll back benefits and protections for workers in its landline department -- ended without a contract for the company's unionized workers. But Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), says they have reached an "agreement to restructure bargaining" and that Verizon has backed down from the 100 concessions it asked its workers to make.

The strike was an impressive show of large-scale solidarity. At best, it may have tempered the company's ambitions to undo 50 years of contract improvements in these negotiations, but it didn't take the largest worker concessions -- including increased health-care costs -- off the table. The limits of this strike are a painful reminder that, even if workers can protect their current contracts, Verizon has been winning its 16-year war to reduce their relevance.

Take this comparison: In 1983, 700,000 union workers -- a majority -- went on strike at AT&T and its Baby Bells (predecessors to the current Verizon and the new AT&T). Today, only 60,000 of Verizon's nearly 200,000 employees are unionized by the CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), though 15,000 weren't able to strike because their contracts don't expire this year. The decline in union density is set to continue: Almost all union members are in the company's shrinking landline business and Verizon's growing wireless division is almost entirely union-free.

That divide weakens the unions' ability to negotiate even for status quo contracts, while providing the company a other employees it can conscript to fill in for striking union members. "It's a challenge being on strike with just 30 percent of the company," says Verizon employee Greg Ross.

Verizon has made hay of the fact that union members mostly work in the shrinking landline side of the company (the implicit logic: unions drag down business). That public posture obscures both the union workers' role in building Verizon's wireless network -- wireless services, after all, rely on on-the-ground infrastructure -- and the company's relentless campaign to drive down its own union density. Verizon's decades-long campaign has "succeeded to a terrifying degree" says Steve Early, a former 27-year CWA staffer and the author of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor. Cohen says the company has "done everything imaginable" and "created enormous conflict and fear around a decision to join a union."

Management zealously fought unionization in its wireless division starting in 1995, when it used its restructuring from NYNEX to Bell Atlantic as a pretext for withdrawing union recognition for 300 wireless workers. The unions resisted the move but only won back recognition for a minority. Early says that the CWA did not respond effectively enough to stop Verizon from using wireless expansion to dilute unionization. "The company was quite public about its intentions," he says, "but on the wire line side you have a lot of local leaders that as long as they can maintain the contract standards ... it's enough to get them re-elected."

The CWA did make winning a fair organizing process for wireless workers a central focus of its 2000 Verizon contract fight and strike, and it won an agreement with the company that on paper guaranteed a fair process for many wireless workers to join the union. But over the next four years, Verizon violated the letter and spirit of that agreement by transferring work to geographic areas that were exempted from it; the company campaigned against unionization and shut down call centers in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts, where workers were demanding recognition. The agreement expired in 2004 without any new union members in wireless.

The 75 union wireless workers the CWA does represent played a crucial role in this month's strike: If no wireless workers had gone on strike, picketing by CWA members outside Verizon Wireless retail stores would have been illegal "secondary picketing." Rand Wilson, a campaign coordinator for the AFL-CIO, believes pickets of retail stores across the country were one of the most effective tactics of the strike. Wilson, a longtime telecom organizer who worked on the CWA's successful campaign to win recognition for 800 formerly nonunion Verizon Business workers, sees it as "a template for what needed to be done with Verizon Wireless."

More broadly, Early says the failure to organize wireless workers in the last decade has led some in the CWA "to give up on the challenge." Early, who was involved in planning for the current contract campaign, criticizes the union for keeping the strike focused on protecting benefits for current union members and not on organizing rights in the ever growing wireless division. "We have never stopped organizing at Verizon Wireless," Cohen says. (CWA has successfully organized the majority of workers at rival AT&T)

Early describes the regular reports he heard from Verizon Wireless workers of the ways management fostered resentment of their unionized landline counterparts. "You are the profit center," managers would tell them. "You are the ones that are making us the success that we are today. See that guy over there, in that hard hat -- do you know how much he makes?"

If the rest of the Verizon workforce were unionized, 18-year service technician Jose Burgos Jr. said on Friday, "we would all be out, and this would be settled today." The most significant legacy of the suspended strike and the ongoing contract campaign will be their effects on prospects for unionization of Verizon's nonunion majority, be they polarization between union strikers and nonunion wireless workers who replaced them, inspiration for wireless workers at the sight of union members taking the fight to Verizon, or newly mobilized union members who join campaigns to organize their co-workers.

Cohen says that the strike has already led 100 nonunion Verizon Wireless workers to reach out about joining a union. He says workers "are more willing to get involved if they see that they are part of a movement" of the kind on full display for the past two weeks. Cohen adds that "the strike has significantly increased the chances of unity" between the union and nonunion parts of the company. If the strike does spur more successful organizing of nonunion Verizon workers, that will be its most lasting legacy. If the CWA doesn't meet that challenge, future strikes will keep getting smaller -- and more difficult.

You may also like