On August 1, 2015, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America contract with Verizon expired. However, unlike previous years, they decided to not strike – a move meant to undermine the company’s hiring and housing of scabs. This is a labor struggle that will have a major impact on the entire labor movement.
“I think the days of the short strike is over,” said Dan Murphy, a retired member of the union. “Verizon wants to break the union and is willing to overwork lower levels of management in the process.”
But it also could impact customer service for one of the biggest telephone, internet, and television providers in America as well as basic issues of privacy.
The current ownership of the Verizon Communications Corporation is one of the most militantly anti-union groups in the country despite the fact they have brought in $1 billion per month for the past 18 months. Their CEO Lowell McAdam has been public about his intention to “kill the copper,” eliminating all the landline service within the Verizon network. How that would impact customer service will be addressed later, but from a labor perspective, it is important to understand that these words translate to plain old fashioned union busting. But first a little explanation is required.
Verizon as a company is in fact two extremely segregated workforces, the unionized wire telecom services provider and the nonunion wireless provider. By eliminating the wireline business, including copper cable and FiOS fiber optic, the company would be able to justify a significant series of layoffs, diluting the union presence. In February 2015, Verizon sold off the copper landlines in 14 states and fiber wireline footprint of FiOS West to Frontier Communications. They would have sold more of the FiOS service, but the unionized labor costs were far too great. Therefore, when their two-year contract expired last month, this presented the company with an opportunity to bust two of the major labor unions in America, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and Communications Workers of America (CWA).
There have previously been signals that Verizon is trying to eliminate the landlines and therefore the unions. Following Hurricane Sandy, they were given substantial subsidies to rebuild the infrastructure, funding that would have covered 50 percent of their costs, but they claimed the storm’s damage was too significant to rebuild. This is of course complete nonsense.
In June, the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications released a damning report that showed Verizon had broken a major agreement with the Five Burroughs. In 2008, the company had accepted a bargain in exchange for a cable television franchise, agreeing to lay fiber optic cable and bring high-speed internet to everyone in the city. But apparently, the company merely activated the cable service and refused to roll out the fiber optic, thereby keeping unionized workers from acting on what would have been the most fruitful jobs on the Eastern seaboard. In response to the report, Verizon denied the charges and blamed the union.
The general feeling of the workers is that the company wants to take all the money and run, as made obvious by the sale to Frontier. The company is trying to reduce the workforce, wants to raise the cost of healthcare despite the savings created by the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and gut job security. Already they have had some success, forcing workers to pay into a 401 (k) as opposed to the pension system that defined the benefits package of the Ma Bell and Baby Bell telephone companies for generations.
As the end of the contract approached, unionized customer call center workers noticed something very odd. First, under the auspices of a farcical ’employee well-being’ effort, the company cut the hours of the Providence office significantly, from 7 am-11 pm to 7 am-7 pm. Overtime was offered during peak hours to other offices for reasons sources tell me had to do with hurting the New England labor force. ‘Preferred shifts’ were offered to employees as part of a re-canvass of the office, allowing workers to keep their different pay, but it still was problematic for both the work and outside life of many employees.
Then, as closing approached, the workers noticed their call queues jump into the hundreds every night. Sources tell me they see this as a blatant sign that the company was training scab labor in this window of time. This and a variety of other signs led the union leadership to choose not to strike as they did two years ago.
But this is not a painless effort, it is causing great stress for the workers and their families. They are going in to work daily and getting pay as well as benefits, but they have no arbitration process in place in case of grievances. Hoping to provoke a walk out and implement their scab workforce, the company made a proposal to the unions that was repulsive. And keep in mind, Frontier, who just bought a large section of the Verizon network, settled with IBEW and CWA without a strike very recently. The writing is on the wall, this is an effort to destroy the union, a serious blow to organized labor that would carry as much of an effect as the laws passed by Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin just a few years ago.
There are, however, some interesting developments to consider. Recently, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that corporations must directly participate in negotiations with labor unions at franchises. Previously, if a union were to form at a fast food restaurant that is a franchise, the union would need to negotiate with the individual owners. But now, should Verizon Wireless franchise workers choose to organize, Verizon would need to directly negotiate with the side of their business they have worked so hard to prevent from doing so. As such, a union victory here could eventually lead to an organization drive in Verizon stores by the CWA, who organizes groups like graduate students and nontraditional workplaces.
There are things that both customers and non-customers can do to express solidarity. Those who are not paying a Verizon bill can reach out to their local IBEW and CWA branches and ask if they are accepting donations for support during this time. The unions know if they strike that this could be as brutal as the Caterpillar battle in the mid-1990’s. It is going to take old-fashioned solidarity to help them stay above water, but unions, as non-profit organizations, are allowed to accept donations.
Customers can also do a great deal. Write Lowell McAdam and the Board of Directors and tell them to settle fairly with the unions or else you are canceling your subscriptions. If you make a call to Customer Service, ask if you are speaking to a union operator, and if not, ask to be transferred to one. There are already a variety of utilities that can take the place of Verizon cable services, such as Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube. There is a way to make them know the customers stand with the workers. Part Two of this series will address customer service and the future of telecom while Part Three will address privacy concerns.
Visit the Stand Up To Verizon website by clicking here.
The CWA can be reached at 401-275-0760.
The IBEW can be reached at 401-946-9900.