American workers saw a huge victory when the Verizon strike ended over Memorial Day weekend. Around 35,000 striking workers represented by the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) returned to work last Wednesday after agreeing in principle to a contract that includes raises, benefits increases adding more U.S. call center jobs.
The strike lasted six weeks, in locations from Massachusetts to Maryland, and brought about several tense moments between workers and management, including an impasse at the bargaining table that required the intervention of Labor Secretary Perez and charged interactions between strikers and replacement workers. The most surreal moment was when an attorney for Verizon management struck three strikers with his Porsche in Maryland on April 15. No one was seriously hurt, but the absurdity of the incident was indicative of the high tensions between workers and management by that point. It also signified the deep inequality seen in the United States: a group of Verizon workers were struck by a car worth two or three times their yearly salary.
For the duration of the strike, the workers held firm. Their perseverance led to a substantial victory that could reverberate through the rest of the American economy as workers are emboldened to demand more for their labor in a time when wages and benefits have failed to keep up with productivity.
The Verizon workers have tentatively won numerous benefits, which include a 10.9 percent salary increase, no cuts to pensions, and a promise by Verizon to add 1,300 call center jobs along the East Coast. These jobs were under threat of outsourcing by Verizon, so to get additional jobs in this occupation while preventing outsourcing is a notable concession from the company. And although retirement health benefits were curtailed, the contract is a resounding win for workers.
Retail Workers’ First Contract in Everett, MA and Brooklyn, NY
Perhaps the biggest step forward brought about by the victory is the fact that it’s the first contract for Verizon retail workers in Everett, MA and Brooklyn, NY. These workers finally have a union and a contract in an occupation that is known for low pay and erratic scheduling. Verizon has also fiercely resisted the unionization of employees in their wireless retail locations. It is only after years of organizing that this location was able to join the CWA in 2014. As a wall between the land-line workforce and wireless workforce at Verizon erodes, workers in both divisions can build power.
The win in the working-class city of Everett was particularly sweet. Anyone driving by a Verizon store in Everett or in the greater Boston area (where this author has lived and worked) during the strike was sure to be greeted by the same sight: workers picketing enthusiastically, while the store’s parking lot remained empty of customers, who refused to cross the picket line. After decades of blue-collar work in Everett being increasingly replaced by lower-paying service sector jobs, seeing Verizon workers assert their rights to better pay and increased job security should serve as encouragement to other workers in the service sector. The shift from manufacturing to services in the U.S. economy reverberated through the residential city like most areas in the United States, and low-paying service jobs became the norm. So it was encouraging to see workers at the Verizon store there make national news for their involvement in the strike, asserting that workers in the service sector deserve the same dignity as any other occupation.
Mike Tisei, chief steward at the Everett Verizon store, said that the new contract “means a better quality of life and meaningful economic security for our families. Today [May 30th] is a great day for my family and working families along the East Coast, and it’s only possible because we stood together.”
Mike Tisei, chief steward at the Everett Verizon store, said that the new contract “means a better quality of life and meaningful economic security for our families. Today [May 30th] is a great day for my family and working families along the East Coast, and it’s only possible because we stood together.” The strike clearly has concrete implications for people beyond wage increases and the minutiae of profit-sharing schemes; they feel empowered at their workplaces and are getting a fair shot at a middle class career.
The Strike by the Numbers: Work Stoppages and Strike Data
This strike has already made some waves in data on work stoppages and strikes. Work stoppage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) can be used to gauge the amount of labor disputes as workers strike or management stage lockouts. We are only about five months into 2016, yet according to the figure below, the number of workers that have been idle from labor disputes numbers around 74,000. This figure is largely increased by the thousands of Verizon workers who participated in the strike.
2016 has more work stoppages thus far than any of the past three years. According to the BLS, the strike at Verizon is also the largest since another CWA/IBEW strike at Verizon in 2011. The level of strike action by the CWA and the IBEW is unique could bolster the labor movement as a whole by encouraging other workers to organize. The idea that strikes are a bygone tactic for the labor movement in the twenty-first century has been questioned. Verizon workers’ efforts show that strikes can still get the goods.
Can You Hear Us Now? The Way Forward for the Labor Movement
Bob Master, Assistant to the Vice President of the CWA, pointed to several factors of why the strike was such a success. “The company underestimated our resolve in continuing the strike. They thought they could keep the pressure on and break it in two or three weeks. The picketing at Verizon stores was extremely effective; we had estimates that sales were down 20-30 percent in stores being picketed. And the [political] climate in the country meant the country was on our side. To have Senator Sanders publicly denounce McAdam [CEO of Verizon] two days into the strike was big.”
Although this successful strike is one of the rare instances of workers in the private sector winning better wages and conditions in a time where unionization rates in the private sector are low, it may be a sign of positive things to come for American workers. With the Fight for $15 movement ongoing and new forms of labor organizing, the labor movement is gaining a dynamism that it sorely needs after decades of decline and anti-union legislation.
Two key take-aways are evident with this victory. Firstly, the strike shows that it is possible for workers to stand in solidarity in order to prevent outsourcing. The field technicians at Verizon struck for themselves and their fellow workers in Verizon call centers that were facing outsourcing. About 10,000 Verizon call center workers are now unionized with CWA. This kind of cross-occupational solidarity was essential to the success of the strike.
Secondly, retail service workers can be a source of increased power for the labor movement. From OUR Walmart to the UFCW’s focus on grocery workers, retail workers and alt-labor groups are at the center of labor stories in the national spotlight today. The movement as a whole needs to sustain this momentum. Now, CWA has secured the first contract for Verizon retail workers in Everett, MA and Brooklyn, NY. Bold strategies are needed for working families to maintain decent standards of living in the twenty-first century economy. The hard work of the rank-and-file workers at CWA and IBEW is a great example to follow.
We are in a unique political moment in which labor rights and economic inequality are at the forefront of a presidential campaign.
We are in a unique political moment in which labor rights and economic inequality are at the forefront of a presidential campaign. Senator Sanders is staunchly pro-labor and Secretary Clinton has expressed her support for unions in her campaign platform. Even Donald Trump had to walk back his comments that wages were too high. Indeed, rampant inequality in this country likely took more heavy-handed union-busting tactics off the table. The contradiction of a millionaire complaining about how tough it is to make ends meet would not be well received by the public in the current political climate. Unions and workers need to capitalize on this moment—many more wins for working families are possible in the near future.
Cover Photo Source: Flickr, Thomas Altfather Good, http://bit.ly/217S8tS.