Labor Scores at Verizon

Against the Current, No. 89, November/ December 2000

Rachel Douglas

ON AUGUST 6 87,000 members of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) struck Verizon Communications in twelve states from Maine to Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

At the heart of the strike was the unions’ attempt to maintain wall to wall unionization in an industry which is rapidly changing, to strengthen job security for workers in the wake of a national merger, and to fight the spread of lean production. The three-year contract we won represents a major victory on all of these issues.

The way the strike was conducted, at least in New York City, though, raises questions about the unions’ ability to conduct a nationwide bargaining campaign in the future, a necessary next step in fighting what is now the biggest telecommunications company in the country.

Verizon, the product of the recent Bell Atlantic/GTE merger, employs 260,000 workers. The industry leader in profits, it’s also a company in transition. Local telephone companies (wireline) are still where most union members are employed. That division is growing at 4% annually, and is projected to continue at 4% for the next several years.

Compare that to the cellular (wireless) division, the fastest growing segment of the industry. Wireless growth, currently at 25%, is projected to grow 20% annually for the next five years. According to CWA estimates, by 2008 the workforce in wireless will expand to a total of 334,000 workers.

Wireline will still employ more workers, an estimated 560,000 by 2008. But even within the wireline division, data communications represented 80% of revenue growth in 1999. Wireless generates more revenue and profits per customer and per employee than wireline. In short, wireless and data communication lines are the future of the highly profitable telecommunications industry.

Will Workers’ Leverage Last?

For now, however, wireline remains the core of Verizon. Local telephone companies employ the largest share of the workforce, produce the greatest share of revenues, and service the largest number of users.

Telephone workers in wireline are at our peak leverage point. As wireless grows and represents an ever-increasing share of the industry profits, our leverage will decrease, unless we succeed in organizing the wireless workers. The time to take on this fight was now, and CWA took up the challenge.

The contract represents a major victory for the unions. It expands organizing rights for wireless workers, stipulating that the company recognize the union if 55% of the workers sign cards authorizing union representation.

While the agreement covers only wireless workers in the twelve states on strike — 8,000 of the 32,000 wireless workers — it’s an important foot in the door. It includes a ban on new contracting initiatives, and limits the amount of work Verizon can move.

All DSL (digital subscriber line) work will be done by CWA members. Overtime caps were established for operators and customer service representatives. The contract includes a wage increase of 12.5%, a pension increase of 14.7%, and improved medical benefits.
The only troubling addition is a still to be defined “team based
incentive program.”

On TV the strike looked like a great example of what a militant, mobilized workforce can do. Mass demonstrations, mobile picketing, family rallies, and rowdy picket lines made front-page news. But from a striker’s perspective in Local 1101 in New York City the union’s slogan of a membership “united through education and mobilization” rang hollow.

There was little strike preparation among the membership, and the local distributed almost no information on bargaining issues. While the national CWA website had bargaining background papers, most members never knew these existed. Other than the struggle for cardcheck and neutrality for Verizon Wireless, most members didn’t know what the key issues of the strike were until the press began reporting them.

Activism at the Base

Despite the lack of organization on the local’s part, members’ actions during the first week of the strike resulted in what the New York Times called “one of the most unruly strikes in years.”

Small groups of workers organized mobile picketing themselves. An inordinate number of flat tires and other calamities befell Verizon trucks and facilities the first few days of the strike.

A mass August 10 rally in front on Verizon headquarters drew 12,000 workers from locals throughout the five boroughs. The sea of red shirts — CWA’s trademark — stretched for blocks in front of Verizon headquarters. Yet the weekend following the rally, picket lines in NYC were taken down, to show Verizon that the local leadership “could turn it on or turn it off” as they wished.

The problems inherent in a union based on leaders “turning it on and off” were clear at the end of the strike. Officials from New York and New England reached an agreement with Verizon on August 20, and directed their 50,000 members back to work.

But workers arrived at their worksites on August 21 to find picketers representing the 37,000 CWA members from the mid-Atlantic states who were still on strike. Incredibly, Local 1101 officials instructed members to cross the picket line, arguing that the mid-Atlantic region remained on strike over “local issues.”

Two days later, under heavy pressure from International President Morty Bahr, embarrassing media reports of returning strikers crossing picket lines, and angry members, 1101 President Joe Connolly requested permission from the International to take the 50,000 northeastern workers back out on a sympathy strike. Later that day Verizon reached an agreement with the locals still on strike.

Trouble Signs

The strike reinforced two things to members — (1) CWA delivers, and (2) what rank-and-file members think has little bearing on what actually happens.

Our job as members is to wait for instructions, and then follow them<197>except our last instructions were to cross a CWA picket line. That position caused confusion and anger among the rank and file. Some members respected the picket lines, and others didn’t report to work until the conflict was over.

But many members accepted the local’s line that we were “standing Strong” and not letting the mid-Atlantic leaders “use us” to regain contract language they had previously given up. The degree to which members were willing to abandon the union’s usual position — that we never cross a picket line — and to follow officials’ misguided instructions was disheartening.

This reflected the basic functioning of the union, though. The high wages, good benefits, and job security workers have at Verizon have convinced many members that the top-down militancy of the local works, even while it may leave them in the dark at times.

Wasn’t this strike evidence of that? We won a great contract, opened the door to organizing the wireless division, and ensured that union workers will play a role in the growth sectors of the industry.

A closer look at how the union functions at the rank-and-file level tells a different story. The fact that members have almost no voice in determining if and when job actions take place weakens participation in those actions. Many opt out with the attitude “it’s a union thing, it’s got nothing to do with me.”

The lack of information members received during the strike affected participation on the picket line, which dwindled before the first week was up. Many members hold the view that everything to do with the union is “political” — having more to do with officials’ ambitions and conflicts than with the good of the members.

All these factors weaken our ability to organize against management. Rather than getting sidetracked by differences between officials, the next round of bargaining should focus on fighting for a nationwide contract that combines the best of the different regional agreements.

We’ll need to be united in order to meet the challenge of fighting the most profitable telecommunications company in the country, resist the spread of lean production, and beat Verizon’s attempts to expand its non-union workforce.

ATC 89, November-December 2000