Verizon in Struggle with Striking Workers
As unemployed young rioters rage across London and frustrated homeless people in Holon burn tires on the streets of Israel, the great capitalist democracy across the Atlantic is also feeling repercussions from its own floundering economy.
On Monday, 45,000 workers represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) staged a coordinated walkout across a range of northeast and mid-Atlantic states, from Maine to Virginia.
The workers are disgruntled employees of Verizon Communications, which, according to its website, is "America's largest and most reliable wireless voice and 3G communication network".
However, the company's reliability was compromised at midnight on Saturday, Aug. 6, when CWA's contract with Verizon, covering 45,000 CWA and IBEW members, expired with no decision reached on the proposed one billion dollars in concessions.
Infuriated that the company is requesting 20,000 dollars in givebacks from every employee, Verizon workers are refusing to back down.
"We're fighting for our middle-class lives here," Michael Harris, president of CWA local 2336 in Washington, told IPS.
"If Verizon can afford to pay their executives a lot of money, they can maintain and treat us a little better. We work [extremely] hard for this company and we deserve [better] than this."
According to the records, Verizon's CEO Ivan Seidenberg took home 81 million dollars in total compensation over the last four years, including huge benefits for himself and his family, effectively pocketing a wage 300 times the pay of the average worker. Overall, Verizon's top five executives earned 258 million dollars in the last half decade.
Meanwhile, middle-income active and retired workers are being asked to give up thousands of dollars to help the company stay "afloat".
"They are trying to force active and retired workers to pay thousands of dollars for their medical care, eliminate benefits for injured workers, slash paid sick leave, eliminate all job security protections, and make it easier to send our work to overseas contractors in places like India and the Philippines," according to a CWA press release Tuesday.
Another demand on Verizon's negotiating table is replacing the current high-quality health care plan with a high-deductible plan requiring up to 6,800 dollars in additional costs borne by workers.
Verizon says that these cutbacks are necessary to keep the ailing company on its feet.
According to a letter penned by Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam on Sunday night and distributed to all U.S.-based wireline and corporate management, "It's no secret that the Wireline business has experienced a ten-year decline in our customer base and in profitability…we have arrived at the point where we must make additional hard decisions to address customer needs and the overall operating costs of the business."
"We're asking our union-represented employees to help us on a variety of issues that could streamline our processes and further reduce our Wireline cost structure while keeping their overall compensation and benefits among the best in corporate America," McAdam wrote, adding that unless a deal was struck soon the results would be "catastrophic".
However, Steve Early, author of "Civil Wars in U.S. Labor" reported this week, "Like General Electric, which just won givebacks from CWA and other unions, Verizon "isn't under any financial stress," according to The Wall Street Journal. The company reported 10.2 billion dollars in profits in 2010 and its net income for the first half of this year was 6.9 billion dollars."
The paper also noted that Verizon's wireline business, which includes home lines and business telephones, experienced revenue slumps of 2.9 percent in 2010 and 1.2 percent in the first six months of 2011 – losses which management is citing as the impetus to demand huge givebacks.
But the 70 striking workers from Verizon's wireless arm say this is simply an excuse. These employees, the only unionized workers at the wireless operation, insist that the company line of "plummeting profits" is merely a guise for an overall disregard for workers' collective bargaining power.
"Verizon can't tell us they're losing customers, they can't tell us they're not one of the most profitable companies in America," said Daniel Gutierrez, a CWA Local 1101 member helping to lead negotiations on the wireless agreement.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Verizon Wireless "boosted its subscriber rolls by 2.2 million in the second quarter, double that of rival AT&T Inc.".
"They want us to go to merit-based pay" rather than wage increases tied to seniority, said Gutierrez, 41, a technician and 16-year veteran of the company, saying that accepting the demand would effectively wipe out decades of hard-won gains by the unions.
"This Verizon work stoppage is the sixth strike in the last 28 years by some of the telephone workers involved," Early said. "They've been in the forefront of resisting healthcare cost shifting and other concession demands since private sector employers first went on the offensive after the air traffic controllers' strike was defeated in 1981."
This history includes strikes by the CWA and IBEW in 1983, 1986, 1989, 1998, 2000 and 2004. In the toughest of those struggles, 60,000 CWA and IBEW members struck for four full months to protest healthcare costs shifting at what was then NYNEX, the New York and New England company now known as Verizon.
Meanwhile, as the strike enters its fifth day, the company has hired thousands of non-unionised workers to break the picket lines. Strikers protesting outside Verizon outlets and headquarters across the country responded with chants of "Union busting – it's disgusting," while urging onlookers and allies to stand with the unions.
On Wednesday, Verizon filed for and was granted a court injunction after striking workers blocked the entrance to the company's Pittsburgh headquarters.
According to Verizon, "Some union picketers put up chains and locks across and exits of the parking lot of a Verizon facility…prohibiting the workers there from leaving in their cars. This act is a direct violation of a court injunction prohibiting illegal blocking of Verizon facilities and those responsible are subject to legal action on the part of law enforcement authorities."
For the workers, this strike is a matter of basic civil rights, and they do not appear to be backing down.
"We have the right to communicate with the public about Verizon's demands and we maintain that CWA members should be able to picket about this dispute," CWA representative Candice Johnson said in a statement Wednesday.
Several other veteran employees described this struggle – on which their health and the health of their families hinge – as a matter of "life and death".