The Verizon Strike Is Now In Its Second Month, and the Stakes Are Higher Than Ever

Shaun RichmanMay 16, 2016

CWA members in Buffalo, New York, in 2011. (Stand Up to Verizon)

This piece first appeared at Jacobin.

As the mas­sive strike at Ver­i­zon enters its sec­ond month with no end in sight, the stakes — for the work­ers, the com­pa­ny, and the broad­er labor move­ment — are ris­ing. Even main­stream media out­lets like the New York Times have tak­en note, cast­ing it as some­thing of an epochal bat­tle over whether the econ­o­my can tol­er­ate good jobs that actu­al­ly deliv­er eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty and decent benefits.

The strike began on April 13, when 40,000 Ver­i­zon land­line work­ers, rep­re­sent­ed by the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA) and the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (IBEW), walked out after nine months of con­tentious and fruit­less con­tract nego­ti­a­tions. The unions are fight­ing employ­er demands to make out­sourc­ing and off­shoring jobs eas­i­er, as well as cut­backs in health benefits.

Ver­i­zon isn’t budg­ing. It opened the month of May by can­cel­ing strik­ing employ­ees’ health insur­ance — an action that was tech­ni­cal­ly legal, but union offi­cials say rep­re­sents a depar­ture from the past. In the mean­time, unions have been help­ing mem­bers patch togeth­eremer­gency health cov­er­age.

These days, a strike of the Ver­i­zon action’s scale and dura­tion is exceed­ing­ly rare. That’s large­ly because the stakes for work­ers are so high. Strik­ers don’t just lose their pay and ben­e­fits — they risk los­ing their job entire­ly.

When Con­gress passed the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act in 1935, their explic­it pur­pose was to encour­age col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, restrict inter­fer­ence with unions’ right to strike, and pro­hib­it dis­crim­i­na­tion against work­ers for union activ­i­ty. (They were also hop­ing that by pro­vid­ing an order­ly process for union recog­ni­tion, work­ers would stop phys­i­cal­ly occu­py­ing cor­po­rate prop­er­ty and dis­rupt­ing commerce.)

But almost imme­di­ate­ly after the NLRA’s pas­sage, the courts got to work gut­ting union rights. In 1939, the Supreme Court decid­ed that of course” Con­gress didn’t mean to cur­tail cap­i­tal­ists’ right to keep their busi­ness­es open, and so of course” employ­ers could hire new work­ers to per­ma­nent­ly replace strik­ing work­ers. Being replaced, they rea­soned, wasn’t the same as being fired or dis­crim­i­nat­ed against.

In the 1980s and 90s, employ­ers began using this legal prece­dent in earnest. They’d bar­gain unions to an impasse, dare them to go out on strike, and then replace work­ers with scabs. The tac­tic worked, suc­cess­ful­ly decer­ti­fy­ing much of the union­ized indus­tries in the US.

Unions still have lim­it­ed legal recourse. In the cur­rent dis­pute, the CWA has filed an unfair labor prac­tice charge with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board over Verizon’s bar­gain­ing con­duct — a move that could pro­vide strik­ers with a mea­sure, but far from a guar­an­tee, of pro­tec­tion against per­ma­nent replacement.

Verizon’s machi­na­tions under­score work­ers’ vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. The com­pa­ny is plac­ing full-page ads in news­pa­pers seek­ing out tem­po­rary full-time tech­ni­cians” (it claims to have recruit­ed thou­sands” of scabs, a fig­ure so vague that even For­tune mag­a­zineput it in scare quotes) and attempt­ing to lure work­ers across the pick­et line. So far, Ver­i­zon boasts, one thou­sand union mem­bers have scabbed. But even if that num­ber is accu­rate, it would amount to less than 3 per­cent of the workforce.

One of the rea­sons the Ver­i­zon work­ers are strik­ing when few oth­er unions are will­ing to take the leap is that their skills and expe­ri­ence are not eas­i­ly replace­able. As social media sites like the Stand Up To Ver­i­zon Face­book page show with aplomb, scabs are bum­bling through their repair work, with often dan­ger­ous consequences.

Ver­i­zon is will­ing to cope with the tem­po­rary inep­ti­tude because it is intent on fac­ing down the unions. With cell phones sup­plant­i­ng land­lines and fiber-optic cables becom­ing a more lucra­tive mar­ket than Ma Bell’s lega­cy cop­per wires, the com­pa­ny wants to quar­an­tine the unions from its growth divisions.

To that end, Ver­i­zon has vig­or­ous­ly resist­ed union orga­niz­ing attempts at its wire­less divi­sion — and with much suc­cess. While the staff at a hand­ful of wire­less stores have orga­nized, none have won a contract.

For their part, the strik­ing unions have extend­ed their pick­et lines to as many Ver­i­zon Wire­less store­fronts as pos­si­ble. Any dent they can put in the wire­less division’s mar­ket share, the unions rec­og­nize, is col­lat­er­al dam­age for Verizon.

They’ve also fanned out to the legal and polit­i­cal front. Ear­li­er this month, the unions filed fed­er­al com­mu­ni­ca­tions charges against Ver­i­zon for its strong-arm tac­tics in push­ing tra­di­tion­al tele­phone cus­tomers to switch to the company’s more mod­ern (and more expen­sive) fiber optic system.

And they’ve applied car­rot-and-stick pres­sure around the company’s high-speed Fios ser­vice, which is in high demand among res­i­den­tial cus­tomers — and there­fore pop­u­lar with local politi­cians — but remains a low­er invest­ment pri­or­i­ty for Ver­i­zon than its non-union wire­less division.

In oth­er activ­i­ty off the pick­et line, union activists and sup­port­ers dis­rupt­ed Verizon’s May 5 share­hold­ers meet­ing in Albu­querque, New Mex­i­co. Two hun­dred and fifty activists protest­ed the con­fab, includ­ing fif­teen who engaged in civ­il dis­obe­di­ence. Union pen­sion vot­ers, rep­re­sent­ing $1.3 bil­lion in Ver­i­zon stock, also forced an ulti­mate­ly unsuc­cess­ful vote on a res­o­lu­tion to cur­tail exec­u­tive compensation.

To some extent, work­ers have ben­e­fit­ed from strik­ing in a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion year. Bernie Sanders, whose insur­gent cam­paign received its most promi­nent union endorse­ment from the CWA, was on the pick­et line the first day of the strike and has been doing sol­i­dar­i­ty work ever since. Even Hillary Clin­ton — no doubt pres­sured by a sur­pris­ing­ly com­pet­i­tive pri­ma­ry — found a com­fort­able pair of shoes and joined a pick­et line.

The opti­mistic view is that this indi­cates the resur­gence of a long-mori­bund labor movement.

Last year, the fed­er­al Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics, which keeps track of major work stop­pages” (those involv­ing more than one thou­sand work­ers), report­ed a 400 per­cent uptick in lost work­ing hours over the pre­vi­ous year. The increase rep­re­sent­ed the high-water mark for strike activ­i­ty over the past half-decade — and the Ver­i­zon strike alone blows that record out of the water.

Yet the strike is also a major test of whether rel­a­tive­ly well-posi­tioned work­ers can with­hold their labor and win.

A com­mon chant on pick­et lines is One day longer, one day stronger.” That is par­tic­u­lar­ly true of a strike like this one, which is by design and cir­cum­stances a war of attri­tion. The com­pa­ny bud­get­ed for first quar­ter strike-relat­ed prof­it loss­es, but admits that a pro­tract­ed strike could impact the entire year’s bot­tom line.

The strik­ing work­ers, of course, face far worse pri­va­tion. They don’t have share­hold­ers to under­write their loss­es. They just have a strike fund (and a sol­i­dar­i­ty fund). But most work­ers, union­ized and non-union­ized, are in even direr straits.

The out­come of the Ver­i­zon work­ers’ strike will there­fore be tak­en as a labor bell­wether — for good or ill.

The CWA is a spon­sor of In These Times. Spon­sors play no role in edi­to­r­i­al content.

In These Times is proud to fea­ture con­tent from Jacobin, a print quar­ter­ly that offers rad­i­cal per­spec­tives on pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics. Sup­port Jacobin and buy a four-issue sub­scrip­tion for just $19.95.

Shaun Rich­man is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer and the Pro­gram Direc­tor of the Har­ry Van Ars­dale Jr. School of Labor Stud­ies at SUNY Empire State Col­lege. His Twit­ter han­dle is @Ess_Dog.
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