If you live in a northeastern state, you have probably seen picketers clad in red over the past couple of weeks. These were union members who were on strike against their employer, Verizon. That strike has now ended After two hard weeks on the picket lines, facing harassment from company managers and being called greedy by uninformed people on the street, beginning on Tuesday, the 45,000 striking workers will return to their jobs. The Verizon strike had been the nation’s largest work stoppage in four years and the most significant for many years beyond that. It has shown that workers standing together can resist corporate attempts to drive them from the middle-class.
This is a significant victory for workers represented by the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). This strike was always about Verizon’s unwillingness to negotiate the new contract in good faith. Verizon workers have a pretty solid package of middle-class benefits: a good pension plan and health care, as well as a middle-class wage.
For Verizon, a company that paid CEO Ivan Seidenberg $17.5 million in 2010, this benefit package was too much to continue paying. It tried bullying the workers, dictating to them a list of demands that included massive increases in worker heath care costs, a pension freeze, an end to some paid holidays, including Martin Luther King Day; and fewer sick days. Moreover, Verizon refused to budge from its demands.
Verizon simply decided it wanted to destroy the unions. CWA and IBEU organizers accused Verizon of wanting to roll back fifty years of contract victories between the company and unions. Verizon admitted this, attempting the paint the union as out of touch with today’s economy. Verizon has marketed itself as the nation’s leading cell phone company, downplaying its landline operations. Verizon called itself a company of the future and the union a relic of a past with rotary phones and telephone operators.
But the lesson we should take from this is not that union members are out of touch with their desires for decent health care, worker safety, pension plans, and a living wage. Rather, it’s that workers in the information economy need to be targets of major organizing campaigns. From a long-term perspective, the best possible scenario coming out of this strike is not only that they win a new contract protecting most of their hard-earned gains over the years, but that the CWA and IBEU build upon this to organize the legions of workers in Verizon’s wireless division, including store and call center workers.
Verizon comes out of this struggle with a bruised public image. By and large, the media did not paint the workers as greedy, as so often happens. Relatively neutral reporting gave the unions a chance to make their case to the public. Moreover, Verizon engaged in thuggish activities throughout the two weeks. It hired scab labor to replace its unionized workforce, although with limited effectiveness. It obtained injunction after injunction to limit strikers’ activities outside of Verizon stores and facilities. Company officials even engaged in violence against strikers. On Saturday, a Verizon manager from Connecticut who had come to New York to cross the picket line and scab in a Long Island office attacked a striker and sent him to the hospital after bashing his head against the wall of a building.
Finding its belligerent attitude toward the unions counterproductive, Verizon agreed to come to the bargaining table. Whether it negotiates in good faith remains to be seen, but the conditions Verizon agreed to suggest a meaningful first victory for CWA and IBEU workers in this ongoing struggle.
Verizon agreed to a continuation of the current contract while negotiations continue. The bargaining sessions will allow either side to pull out at any time, meaning that the workers could return to the picket line at any time. The continuation also allows employees to work overtime without restriction for the next week, meaning both that the company can get some of its service problems taken care of and workers can make back some of the money they lost through the strike.
It’s also worth noting the real sacrifices the 45,000 workers made during this strike. We often talk about a strike like it was an event akin to going on a vacation. But these are people’s lives in upheaval. Going on strike is not a frivolous action. It means losing paychecks for the duration. While no doubt the union leadership gave the workers some warning that such an event was likely, how many workers really had the opportunity to save up much money? How many of them had to miss house payments? How many worried about the repossession of their cars? How many are trying to save for their children to go to college? I’m sure all feared being fired for their actions.
Yet the workers preserved, showing the power of a union. Their benefits are still at risk, their hold on a middle-class life tenuous. But they have already won the first step of their struggle. They forced Verizon to realize it couldn’t run roughshod over the union, badgering workers into accepting a contract that would make their lives worse. They forced Verizon to the bargaining table. They still have the option of going back on strike if Verizon doesn’t cooperate. Their struggle goes on, one negotiating session at a time. But now, they have the spirit of victory and momentum at their back. The possibility of remaining in the middle-class remains greater than any time during this struggle.