US corporate giant humbled after 45 day strike

US unions scored a significant victory when 39,000 workers from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) humbled the telecommunications giant Verizon after a solid 45 day strike.

Verizon wanted to impose a new contract on its workforce meaning the end of unionised jobs with decent pay and conditions.

On their agenda was a massive increase in outsourcing of call centre work, higher health care costs and reduced retirement benefits.

They also wanted the ability to transfer employees throughout their entire network that stretches from Massachusetts to Virginia for up to two months.

For a lot of established union workers with families, this was a “make or break issue”.

“If Verizon has its way”, explained one construction worker, “it will break the union and turn this into a twenty-dollar-per-hour job with no retirement and little or no health care and ultimately the end of the union”.

After seven months of fruitless negotiations the union finally called a strike on 13 April, the biggest in the US since 2011.

The strike received national and international attention when Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders came to their picket line to support their cause.

Verizon raked in a massive $5.4 billion in profits over the previous quarter and Sanders used their struggle to highlight his campaign against “corporate greed” and thanked them for “telling corporate America that they can’t have it all”.

But Sanders’ support also helped them win over the public and boosted their morale. “You don’t feel like you’re alone. We had bagels delivered almost daily on the picket line, pizza from other unions, contributions from retirees” said chief steward Dennis Dunn from Long Island.

Verizon’s strategy was to use managers and scabs brought in from outside the district to break the strike. The workers’ health insurance, too, was cancelled increasing the pressure on them, particularly those with young families, to break ranks.

But these heavy handed measures only increased their resolve. “One day longer, one day stronger” was their slogan.

In mid-May US Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez intervened and an agreement was reached. While some concessions were made it can only be described as a victory for the unions.

Outcome

At a time when wages are stagnant or declining the Verizon workers won a 10.5 per cent wage increase over four years and increased contributions to their pensions. The company also dropped its demands for concessions on job security and flexibility and agreed to employ an additional 1300 people.

Workers in seven of Verizon’s retail stores, for the first time, won a union contract. This gives the union a toe hold into the otherwise completely unorganised wireless sector.

Also removed was the hated Quality Assurance Review system which was used to harass and micro-manage workers.

It wasn’t the negotiating skills of aspiring Democratic vice presidential candidate Thomas Perez that won the dispute, but the enthusiasm of the workers who persistently rallied and picketed and maintained a solid strike front.

While sightseeing in early May in New York I stumbled across two of their vibrant picket lines outside the company’s wireless retail stores. Decked out in their trademark red shirts, they cheered every member of the public that walked away from the store entrances.

A day of action on 5 May saw the Verizon workers joined by other unionists and community groups and more than 400 retail stores were picketed.

The Verizon workers had a strategy of making life hard for the scabs too. They were followed to find out where they were staying and early next morning a picket-line would assemble to give them a “wake up call”. On a number of occasions hotel management kicked the scabs out, either because organised hotel staff were refusing to cross picket lines or hotel guests were being inconvenienced.

Verizon managed to get injunctions against the pickets and police even transported scabs to workplaces, but this came much too late to break the workers’ morale.

The strike stayed solid, and in the end the scabs and managers weren’t able to maintain the network. New customers for the company’s lucrative fibre-optic installations were being told they’d have to wait until July or August for the service.

A New York CWA shop steward drew out the lessons: “This should put to bed the question of whether or not strikes can win…there were many factors that went into the strike…but the main thing was the strike itself—it was the disruption of work. It was the declining revenue, both at Wireless and landline.”

What remains now is to generalise this lesson across the union movement.

By Mark Gillespie

Magazine

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