Verizon strike wins victory for all workers

bostonverizonstrike1June 6 — After 45 days on the picket line, 39,000 striking Verizon workers went back to work on June 4. Members of the Communications Workers and International Electrical Workers are voting, starting now, on a new four-year contract. Voting will be completed June 17.

“Verizon knows that they got their ass kicked and they know it’s time for us to celebrate,” said CWA President Chris Shelton. “This was the best strike I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.”

A IBEW System Council T-6 report to members stated, “We have emerged from an ideological war with a corporation that believed that this was their opportunity to break the union. The exact opposite happened.” The union bargaining council was chaired by IBEW Local 2222 Business Agent Myles Calvey, who was called a “rock star” of the Boston labor movement by a Verizon union steward.

This was the longest strike in recent years and the biggest since the previous Verizon strike in 2011. Then the IBEW and CWA combined had 45,000 members at Verizon. With a loss of 6,000 jobs since 2011, jobs and job security were a major issue in this strike. The job protection language that the unions fought for in the past, which Verizon sought to gut, is mostly intact.

A company proposal to make workers transfer out of state, away from their families and communities — just to keep their jobs — was forced off the table. A major concern of the workers was the outsourcing of call center positions. In the end, Verizon agreed to hire an additional 1,300 call center workers as well as create new technician jobs.

Current workers’ base pay will rise almost 11 percent by 2019. Monthly pension payments to retired workers were also increased.

Strike pushed Verizon back

Verizon made other demands for concessions from the workers, but the strike pushed them back. These included a scheme to freeze pensions after 30 years of service. Under the old contract, pension credits continue to accrue for as long as a worker keeps working. The company also wanted to take away the union’s right to bargain on behalf of retirees.  

Verizon’s threat to eliminate the cost-of-living allowance was also blocked. The company lost its bid to make Sunday a regular, straight-time work day. Also, management wanted to pay overtime only when the worker put in more than 40 hours during a week — which is the minimum requirement under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. That means workers would lose overtime pay rates when they worked weekends, holidays and after eight hours on a given day, unless it added up to more than 40 hours a week.

(The United Auto Workers lost similar overtime pay during the 2009 GM and Chrysler bankruptcies, and it has yet to be fully restored.)

For the first time, low-wage wireless retail workers at two stores — in Everett, Mass., and Brooklyn, N.Y. — have a union contract. This means they are not mere “employees at will.” They have a grievance procedure and a union to defend them from wrongful discharge by this anti-worker company. Before this contract, workers had to to jump through hoops to get bonuses for achieving “performance” targets; now these are paid without conditions.

This tremendous breakthrough opens the door for a mass organizing campaign in Verizon’s wireless retail sector. A successful union drive in this sector would reverberate throughout the retail industry and be a major boost to the struggle for a $15/hour minimum wage, known as “Fight for 15.”

The unions won improvements to a special retirement buyout program, but the company has more leeway in administering the program. Verizon will surely try to use it to reduce the number of higher seniority workers with traditional pensions. Since 2011, newer hires are in a separate 401k pension tier, where they are not guaranteed a specific pension.

There was one key area where it appears the company got what it wanted. Rising health care costs have been passed on to union members in the form of higher monthly premiums, co-pays and deductibles. Some workers are angry about these higher out-of-pocket costs, which the wage increases might not fully offset.

A sense of power at the point of production

The militant strike was highly effective. The poor service being provided by strikebreakers was driving customers away. Company stock was falling. Beyond that, the potential breakdown of telecommunications — now essential to the basic function of the capitalist economy — was a threat the capitalist state recognized. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez called Verizon and the CWA and IBEW together and pushed them to reach an agreement.

It would be simplistic to analyze this or any strike’s impact only by using a base calculation of the gains and losses on either side. Even those have to be weighted; they must be seen in the context of the time and place in which the terms of a contract — really the terms and conditions that mitigate class exploitation — are fought out.

At one time, the word “concessions” was used to define what the boss could be pressured to “concede” to the union to maintain class peace and avoid disruptions to production. But now, since the Reagan administration broke the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981, that word is used to mean what workers have been forced to give up — that is, the class opposite.

As early as 1848 in the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx wrote about unions and strikes. “Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.” 

Solidarity with strikers

The unity of the workers on the Verizon picket lines, which stretched from Massachusetts to Virginia, was tremendous. The strike brought workers of all nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, religions, abilities and ages together. It won the hearts of workers and oppressed people, organized and unorganized.

Every union in the country made this strike their strike through material aid, walking with the strikers and adopting stores that they picketed on their own. Philippine unions, who know the super-exploitation of call center workers there, supported the strike.

That Verizon “knows they got their ass kicked” is probably true, although the ruling class may arrogantly try to spin this workers’ victory into its opposite. What really matters is what the workers know. They struck back at the point of production. They stopped a company, hell-bent on breaking their union, in its tracks. They went back to work with a newfound awareness of their collective strength.

The whole labor movement feels ownership of the Verizon win. This strike could mark a historic turning point toward “the ever expanding union of the workers.”