WEISBROT: Organized Labor vs. The World Wide Web

Workers at Verizon Communications had a lot of reasons to go out on strike against the nation's largest provider of local telephone and wireless services: loss of jobs to non- union sub-contractors, forced overtime, overbearing management. And a level of stress that can only be described by someone who handles more than 1000 service calls in an eight hour shift and is trying to cold-sell the callers $60,000 worth of extras -- like three-way calling and Caller ID -- each month.

But there is one issue more than any other that gives this strike its historic importance: the right to organize unions in the company's fast-growing wireless division.

In theory, American workers in the private, non-agricultural sector won the right to organize unions in 1935, with the passage of New Deal legislation known as the National Labor Relations Act. This right was only tenuously established, and was later weakened by other legislation and court decisions. Nonetheless there was enough of a legal and institutional framework to allow many workers -- in key industries such as auto, steel, transportation and communications -- to organize unions and bargain collectively. This set the stage for the broadly-shared prosperity that the nation experienced from the end of World War II until the mid 1970s.

That framework has increasingly been undermined over the past 25 years, and so we see the unionized workers at Verizon -- formerly Bell Atlantic -- fighting for a "card-check" agreement that would allow for the organization of presently non-union workers in the company's growing wireless division. "Card-check" would provide for union recognition and collective bargaining when 55 percent of the workers sign cards authorizing the union to represent them.

The company has apparently accepted this arrangement for its 80000 wireless employees from Maine to Virginia. This could avoid the costly election process in which employers routinely intimidate, coerce, and fire workers in order to defeat union organizing. Although the firing of pro-union workers and many other such employer practices are illegal, there is no effective punishment for companies that violate the law. As a result of this severe power imbalance, millions of workers are unable to form unions or bargain collectively, even where they have a majority of the workplace that would prefer to do so.

The experience of Verizon workers clearly shows the need for card-check. Just two weeks ago a group of religious leaders in Massachusetts sent a letter to the management of Verizon Wireless, expressing their concerns about the company's anti-union efforts. Among their concerns were the allegations that employees "threatened with disciplinary action if they discussed unionization or distributed union material anywhere in the building." This effort to shame the company into respecting their workers' rights was organized by Jobs With Justice, a national network of community-labor coalitions that counters employers' illegal tactics by broadening community support for union organizing.

The strike has also raised the more general economic issues that come up every time workers try to organize in a new industry. Business analysts warn that the company cannot afford a union in its wireless division because of "competitive pressures." (Somehow these pressures don't set any limits on the compensation of CEOs, which soared more than 400 percent in the 1990s, to an average of $10.6 million).

But the real issue is what kind of competition will be allowed. Unions, like child labor laws, or health and safety legislation do not prevent competition but set some minimum standards under which it can take place. We have seen how these standards have deteriorated over the last quarter century, as the right to organize unions has been eroded. The median wage in the United States today is the same as it was 27 years ago, measured in terms of what it can purchase; and the real wages of workers in the bottom 20 percent of the distribution have actually fallen by about 9 percent.

There are many who see these changes as inherent in the "new economy," but this isn't true. The Internet may be new, but technological transformation and a changing mix of industries in the economy are not. What is new and different is the failure of the majority of the labor force to share in the gains from economic growth.

The workers at Verizon have put their jobs on the line to try and reverse these trends, and they deserve the public's support for doing so. "Card-check" should be part of our national labor law. The right to organize should be recognized as a fundamental civil right -- with serious fines and damages imposed on employers who violate this right. Without these reforms, there's no reason to expect that most workers will get anything out of the "new economy" -- other than e-overworked and e-underpaid.

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