News & Politics

Can You Hear Us Now? Striking Verizon Workers Rally For Good Jobs and Fair Contracts in New York City

Verizon has launched Scott Walker-style cuts on its workers, who've responded by building a Wisconsin-style coalition of activists.

If the true success of the Wisconsin protests came from the alliances that unions, activists and community leaders built, then the Verizon strikers may have a chance to repeat Madison’s symbolic victories and ripple effects. On Wednesday, August 17, near a Verizon Business center and City Hall, New York City Verizon workers spent their second week on strike joining forces with a coalition of education activists to protest a $120 million, two-year contract the Department of Education plans to make with Verizon.

The protesters gathered at Murry Bergtraum High School and were supported by a cast of union-friendly politicians, including former mayoral candidate Bill Thompson and City Comptroller John Liu. The striking Verizon workers and education activists agree that the city shouldn’t be rewarding a company that’s engaged in union-busting and dismantling of workers' rights and benefits.

“New York City has always been a union city and will always be a union city,” said Liu. The crowd was getting ready to enter the meeting where the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) would vote on the deal. 

“Verizon’s mission is to make as much money as they can, whether it’s taking it from workers pockets or taking it from tax payers,” Bob Master, Communication Workers of America's political director, told me. He said the union has a long history of working with coalitions and that when education advocates brought the PEP vote to CWA's attention, they recognized their mutual interest and planned the action.

The vote is set to decide retroactively on a two-year contract for Verizon to provide high-speed Internet and telephone service for 1,600 public schools. Christopher Calabrese, executive vice president of CWA Local 1109, said they want Verizon to get the contract, but not until the dispute with the workers is settled.

Last Saturday, when Verizon's contract with over 45,000 CWA workers was set to expire at midnight, Verizon refused to engage in productive bargaining and stuck to its demands that would strip over 50 years of bargaining gains for its workers. As Ari Paul at the Guardian explained:

A year ago, CWA leaders told its members to prepare for a strike. The company demanded $1bn in concessions – amounting to a salary and benefits cut of $20,000 per worker, and the elimination of pensions for new workers. CWA District 1 Vice President Chris Shelton said that the company was also demanding retirees pay $6,000 annually for their medical benefits "after they made promises that it would be free". This,union leaders point out, is despite a $19bn profit in the past four years

“This is the most sweeping attack that we’ve ever seen,” said Master. “[Verizon] is slashing costs in a major way.”

The striking workers are landline and Fios workers; the former, according to Verizon, the company's lowest earner in recent years and the latter being the highest. Verizon has seen a decline in its landline division and is claiming that decline as the main reason for the cuts. In five years, Verizon has lost almost half of its local phone customer base. (Verizon's wireless business is non-union.) Master pointed out that the landline division made all the money for the investments in Verizon wireless and Fios. While spurning the hand that fed them, Verizon paid its top executives $19 billion over four years, he said.

As for Verizon the company, it is choosing to fight a public relations battle instead of engaging workers in meaningful negotiations. Taking out full page ads in newspapers and radio ads that focus on asking workers for just "a little bit more" for their health care coverage, must cost the company a pretty penny.  

Yet the usual tactics ensue. Besides the millions spent on a media blitz, Verizon is also planning on suing strikers for sabotage and calling in the FBI to investigate. While trying to endear itself to the public, Verizon is throwing its weight around, demonizing and threatening its striking workers. Though health care costs are only a part of the points of contention, Verizon focuses on that in an attempt to gain the sympathy of the many Americans who have no health care or pay entirely too much for it. 

The story’s the same whether it’s Scott Walker and his dream of a union-free Wisconsin, or New Jersey Governor Christie, another media darling, who is currently involved in another attack on collective bargaining. There’s no distinction between corporate interests and right-wing politicians in the steps they take to discredit, destroy and dismantle unions.

Can a true coalition between unions and other progressive activist groups become a sustained force to be reckoned with against corporate interests, that launch ruthless attacks on the middle and working class?

“Unions are what built the middle class,” says Master. “Dismantling means that only the wealthy benefit from economic growth.” 

Rae Gomes is an associate editor at AlterNet and co-editor of the "Ten Things" column at the Nation magazine.
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