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Working In These Times

Monday, Aug 22, 2011, 11:38 am

Verizon Workers Suspend Strike and Resume Talks—But Strategy for Victory Unclear

BY Mike Elk

Union workers picket outside of a Verizon Wireless store on August 9, 2011 in San Francisco. Verizon is seeking $1 billion in concessions from 45,000 of its union workers.   (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On Saturday, 45,000 Verizon workers suspended their two-week-long strike and agreed to return to work today. Contract talks are set to continue this coming weekend.

Unions agreed that the workers, members of the Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers unions, would continue working under their expired contract until a new contract can be reached. Verizon previously had not agreed to allow workers to work under their existing contract. Under the terms of the back-to-work agreement, Verizon workers cannot strike again for another 30 days and must give seven days’ notice to Verizon if they intend to strike again.

The workers did not settle a new contract, but Verizon agreed to continue bargaining under a new format that union leaders feel will be more productive. CWA Communications Director Candice Johnson said, “We reset bargaining and put in place a structure with Verizon that we will use to move forward and bargain over the issues important to workers, around jobs and maintaining their standard of living. Many management demands were dropped.” Johnson would not disclose the ways in which bargaining has been narrowed.

Verizon VP for Human Resources Marc Reed, however, told the New York Times, “The company hasn’t conceded any of its proposal…At the end of the day we still have healthcare on the table. We still have proposals on job security and moving work on the table.”

It has been made public, though, that Verizon has restructured the way it is bargaining the contract. Previously union leaders representing CWA and IBEW locals from New England to New York bargained at one table and union leaders representing CWA and IBEW locals south of New York bargained at another table. Now, union leaders from Maine to Virginia from both unions will bargain at one table, Johnson says.

Also, Verizon union employees will not be able to refuse to work overtime in the first week of their return to work. This will allow Verizon to insist that union employees fix a large backlog of work that has piled up as a result of the two week strike. The ability of Verizon to force workers to do mandatory overtime will hurt their ability to engage in “work to rule” tactics, wherein workers refuse to work overtime or work slowly (while always following all company rules) in an effort to hurt the company.

Some progressives were quick to denounce the ending of the strike. Writing in The Nation, labor journalist Brian Tierney wrote,

It is difficult to imagine favorable negotiations will occur following the bitter fighting of the last two weeks that saw the company launching an ugly propaganda campaign, running newspaper and radio ads that depicted the workers as greedy and accused them of sabotaging equipment…… Many workers were critical of this stance, arguing that it would be strategically unwise to return to work without a new contract.

However, it should be noted that the strike at Verizon was merely suspended. Union leaders pledged not to strike for 30 days, so another CWA/IBEW strike could occur. If Verizon continues to stonewall workers again, they might choose to strike again.

The unions may choose to engage in a strategy of intermittent strikes, wherein workers strike for a few weeks at a time, then return to work, then strike again for a short term in order to keep pressure the company. The recent strike caused problems and delays in Verizon services. Future strikes—even short-term ones—could cause serious tension and pressure on unions.

Former CWA union organizer (and Working In These Times contributor) Steve Early, however, sees the decision to return to work as “strategically wise.” Early worries, though, that community allies may see the settlement as a victory and demobilize before the fight for a new contract is over.

Indeed, UNITE-HERE President John Wilhem wrote, “President Cohen asked me to extend his thanks and appreciation for UNITE HERE's quick and strong support of the strikers. Obviously, those support activities should now end.” JWJ Director Sarita Gupta wrote in an e-mail that “We have been asked to stop our pickets of wireless stores for the time being.”

Early is concerned that the mixed messages those activists have received about the Verizon strike ending may deflate some of the enthusiasm and energy needed for a long contract campaign. Also, it may cause activists to de-escalate the activities against Verizon when keeping the pressure on Verizon is crucial toward winning a fair contract. Early cited how union activist Brian Buckley cancelled his trip to picket President Obama’s vacation on Martha’s Vineyard as a sign of the de-escalation of the campaign.

“The mixed messages that were sent to community-labor allies when picketing was suspended have created confusion about the next steps in the struggle,” says Early. “People have many claims on their time and attention. There are many competing causes in search of activist support. Whenever you have already attracted significant support, you don’t put it on hold. You constantly find ways to deploy in fashion that has more impact on the employer over weeks, months and years as long as is necessary.”

CWA's Johnson said: “We are readjusting our strategy. We will continue mobilizing and the support of allies is critical to this. We're talking today with allies on moving forward and what actions to take.”

While it is unclear for now what effect the return to work will have on the unions' ability to extract a fair contract from Verizon, it is clear that the strike did draw a great deal of attention to Verizon workers. The largest strike in four years received national media attention and a huge amount of traffic on social media sites in an era where workplace struggles generally get very little of both.

The strike was a clear demonstration of union power. Johnson said CWA has received more than 100 phone calls from unorganized Verizon Wireless workers interested in joining the union.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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