Concessionary 4-Year Verizon Deal Sealed, Despite Dissent in the Ranks

Mike Elk

Unionized Verizon workers, who went on a three-week strike last August, have signed a contract--though some members are grumbling over major concessions.

On Fri­day, the two largest unions at Ver­i­zon agreed upon a four-year con­tract, end­ing a 15-month stand­off. Many rank-and-file mem­bers were skep­ti­cal of the numer­ous con­ces­sions in the con­tract, but ulti­mate­ly vot­ed for rat­i­fi­ca­tion after being heav­i­ly lob­bied by union leaders.

When nego­tia­tors for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA) and Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tric Work­ers (IBEW) ini­tial­ly announced the draft con­tract deal with Ver­i­zon ​on Sep­tem­ber 20, lead­ers were quick to spin it as a vic­to­ry. The sol­i­dar­i­ty of CWA mem­bers and the sup­port of our pro­gres­sive allies made this con­tract hap­pen,” said a state­ment issued by Ed Mooney, Vice Pres­i­dent of CWA Dis­trict 2 – 13, the local that cov­ers CWA mem­bers from Penn­syl­va­nia to Vir­ginia. Ver­i­zon work­ers will keep their stan­dard of liv­ing and the ben­e­fits and work­ing con­di­tions we’ve fought for over the years.”

IBEW and CWA’s sales­man­ship of the ten­ta­tive agree­ment con­trasts with the actions of union lead­ers in anoth­er recent, high-pro­file nego­ti­a­tion. When Chica­go Teach­ers Union nego­tia­tors reached a ten­ta­tive con­tract with Chica­go Pub­lic Schools in Sep­tem­ber in the midst of a strike, union pres­i­dent Karen Lewis said, I’m not going to say this is the great­est thing since sliced bread and try to sell it to them. I’m not a marketer.”

In con­trast, the CWA and IBEW, which joint­ly rep­re­sent 45,000 Ver­i­zon work­ers, appeared eager to sell the con­tract to mem­bers as it snaked its way through the process of rat­i­fi­ca­tion by locals – despite mul­ti­ple con­ces­sions. The con­tract con­tains new pro­vi­sions that will make Verizon’s union mem­ber pay pre­mi­ums for their health­care – pre­mi­ums that would dou­ble over the life of the con­tract. The con­tract also new­ly requires retirees to pay a con­tri­bu­tion for their health care. And, for the first time ever, new hires at Ver­i­zon will not be enti­tled to pen­sions, instead receiv­ing more risky 401(k)s.

No vic­to­ry,” wrote IBEW Local 827 mem­ber Dan McDon­ald of New Jer­sey to Work­ing In These Times upon first read­ing the terms of the ten­ta­tive agree­ment. When future employ­ees will not have the same oppor­tu­ni­ties as me and my fam­i­ly had when I was hired. We failed. All we did was look out for our­selves’ when the idea of a union is to look out for EVERY­BODY! It’s a horse­shit contract.”

McDon­ald’s sen­ti­ments were echoed by oth­er CWA members.

We have one of the best union con­tracts in Amer­i­ca today because CWA and IBEW mem­bers held the line in tough times. Per­haps most impor­tant­ly, we didn’t give in to company’s push for two-tier con­tracts – until 2003, when we con­ced­ed to no job secu­ri­ty for new hires. Then in 2008 we con­ced­ed to a sec­ond tier on retiree health ben­e­fits for new hires. And in this ten­ta­tive agree­ment, there’s no pen­sion for new hires,” CWA Local 1101 mem­ber Pam Gal­pren told Work­ing In These Times. We all know this is how con­tracts are dis­man­tled over time and unions are weak­ened. It’s an incre­men­tal process, with the com­pa­ny count­ing on the fact that mem­bers won’t fight for the future gen­er­a­tion, as long as we can pro­tect what we have. Ver­i­zon has a long-term plan to weak­en our unions, and they are mov­ing pro­gres­sive­ly for­ward on that plan.”

How­ev­er, union lead­ers said that the con­tract was the best that they could get. Four­teen months of nego­ti­a­tions with Ver­i­zon, which began after a three-week strike in August 2011, has led to no gains. They feared that Ver­i­zon would get the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board to declare an impasse in bar­gain­ing,” allow­ing Ver­i­zon to impose an even more con­ces­sion­ary con­tract than the one they even­tu­al­ly accept­ed. The only oth­er option for CWA was a strike in which Ver­i­zon would, legal­ly, be allowed to bring in work­ers to per­ma­nent­ly replace them. A lengthy strike, lead­ers said, could have had the poten­tial to break the union.

Union lead­ers were not shy about express­ing these fears to their mem­bers dur­ing the rat­i­fi­ca­tion process. Don Tremen­tozzi, pres­i­dent of New Eng­land-based CWA Local 1400, sent out a mass text mes­sage while his local was con­sid­er­ing the deal:

So you vote NO? Here’s what hap­pens (maybe) Pres­i­dent Cohen allows the com­pa­ny to give 7 days’ notice and the com­pa­ny impos­es the last best offer. Except no $800.000 sign­ing bonus, no 2 ¼ raise (that’s only upon rat­i­fi­ca­tion), all fired strik­ers are still fired (they come back only upon rat­i­fi­ca­tion). We work under the imposed con­tract. Pres­i­dent Cohen is smart enough not to allow us to go to Slaugh­ter!! That’s a real possibility!!

It is easy to say no.’ It is easy to scream sell­out.’ It is even easy to call a strike — if you do not take seri­ous­ly the respon­si­bil­i­ty for what would hap­pen to 34,000 CWA fam­i­lies dur­ing a lengthy strike,” wrote CWA Dis­trict 1 Vice Pres­i­dent Chris Shel­ton in a let­ter to 34,000 mem­bers Octo­ber 1. He continued:

I tru­ly believe — and so did your Bar­gain­ing Com­mit­tee — that if we did go out, most like­ly it would not have been for two or three weeks, maybe not even two or three months. We believed that if we walked, we had to be pre­pared for a strike that might have last­ed longer than our 17- week strike in 1989, maybe six months or more. In fact, going out might have been walk­ing into a trap the com­pa­ny had set for us — giv­ing them an oppor­tu­ni­ty to replace thou­sands of us and break our union.

How­ev­er, some CWA mem­bers felt that a strike was a risk they had to take.

I think that going into it the per­spec­tive of the lead­er­ship at the nation­al lev­el was that we were going to get a con­ces­sion­ary con­tract. From the point of view from some­one who has to work here every day, I found myself ask­ing why did­n’t we fight like we did in 1989,” says Amy Mul­doon of Queens, New York CWA Local 1106. She says she was­n’t con­vinced that strik­ing work­ers would be per­ma­nent­ly replaced:

We did strike and we did come back so why this sud­den fear of strik­ing? The oth­er thing is that [dur­ing pre­vi­ous strikes] we have seen the com­pa­ny fly in scabs and put up hun­dreds of peo­ple in hotels and they weren’t doing that this time.They had 15 months to impose a last final and best con­tract offer and they weren’t doing that. So why set­tle so quickly?

Beyond the ques­tion of how the com­pa­ny would respond to a strike, there was also the ques­tion of how the pub­lic would respond. Union lead­ers such as Shel­ton thought pub­lic sup­port for a strike would have been dif­fi­cult to main­tain. Mul­doon dis­agrees, cit­ing the Chica­go Teach­ers Union’s example:

The lead­er­ship of our union does­n’t look at this strug­gle as a social or polit­i­cal ques­tion. They aren’t look­ing at could our fight be part of a social move­ment about class in our coun­try. The Chica­go Teach­ers strike shows that could be the case. I mean look at that union, it’s a union that has been ham­mered ide­o­log­i­cal­ly for the last five years. They struck, they had the pub­lic on their side, and they came out ahead. So the ques­tion is why can’t we do that?

How­ev­er, the Ver­i­zon con­tract cov­ers not only work­ers like Mul­doon in the union bas­tion of New York City, but also work­ers from Maine to Vir­ginia who didn’t feel they would have had strong local sup­port for a strike.

With how bad the econ­o­my is here in Rhode Island, they could find scabs to replace us in a sec­ond,” says Eddie Black­burn, trea­sur­er of Prov­i­dence, Rhode Island-based IBEW Local 2323. You look at Mary­land, Vir­ginia, Mass­a­chu­setts, New Jer­sey it’s the same. [Local] 1101 of Brook­lyn – they are in a unique posi­tion but they aren’t going to car­ry us all.”

Black­burn says the con­tract also pro­vides key job secu­ri­ty mea­sures that will pre­vent Ver­i­zon work from being out­sourced to out­side con­trac­tors. The pro­vi­sions increase the per­cent­age of Ver­i­zon calls that must first be direct­ed to a union­ized call cen­ter in the same region. If there are no region­al call cen­ters avail­able, the call must go to union­ized call cen­ters in at least two oth­er regions before being sent out to non-union contractors.

These pro­tec­tions saved jobs, says Blackburn:

In my local alone, we are not only sav­ing 170 bod­ies, we added 60 bod­ies. In the grand scheme, we are net­ting 300-plus bod­ies in New York and New Eng­land. So it’s actu­al­ly adding jobs,” says Black­burn. I have 15 years in so I might not even get to the pen­sion, the con­cern for me is job secu­ri­ty more than the pen­sion cause we don’t have any­body who is even pen­sion eli­gi­ble. We might not make it 5 not even 25 unless we stop this work from being sent out to vendors.

Black­burn, who urged his mem­bers to vote yes, felt the con­tract gives them the time need­ed to orga­nize more Ver­i­zon employ­ees, which they need for a suc­cess­ful strike: We stop the bleed­ing and live to fight anoth­er day. I would call it a tac­ti­cal retreat.”

Mul­doon says she hears this tac­ti­cal retreat” lan­guage every time the union agrees to con­ces­sions at the bar­gain­ing table. Labor is at a moment where things could go either way,” she says. It’s a roll of the dice. And we aren’t going to improve things if we stick with the old play­book of avoid­ing the worst attacks instead of tak­ing on these cor­po­ra­tions and local governments.”

At the end of the day, how­ev­er, not many Ver­i­zon work­ers were will­ing to gam­ble with their rel­a­tive­ly good liv­ings. On Fri­day, CWA-IBEW announced that their locals had rat­i­fied the con­tracts (they did not dis­close the vote mar­gin). Even Dan McDon­ald of Cam­den, New Jer­sey, who ini­tial­ly described the con­tract as horse shit,” says he vot­ed for it. 

We would have been out of a job if we didn’t take this,” says McDon­ald. Ver­i­zon would have declared an impasse and shit­canned all of us.”

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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