By Don McIntosh, associate editor
America’s biggest strike in four years has been under way since April 13, pitting 29,000 members of Communications Workers of America (CWA) and 10,000 members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) against telecom giant Verizon. The strikers are customer service representatives and repair and installation technicians in Verizon’s wireline division, which provides land-line phone service and fiber-optic internet and cable service in nine East Coast states — New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia — plus Washington, D.C.
CWA and IBEW are framing the strike as a struggle against corporate greed. Verizon, which the unions have begun calling “Verigreedy,” made almost $18 billion in profit in 2015, and gave lavish payouts to its top executives, including CEO Lowell McAdam, who made over $18 million last year. Yet the company is demanding concessions from its union workers, including the right to require wireline technicians to work away from home for months at a time; an increase in health-care costs for retirees; and a 30-year limit on pension service credit, for those of its workers who still have a pension (those hired since October 28, 2012. have only a 401(k) under the previous CWA and IBEW contracts).
In a video on a company “labor facts” website, Verizon chief administrative office Marc Reed outlines Verizon’s April 28 “last best final offer,” but doesn’t talk about concessions. Reed says Verizon wants to “[position] the business for future success,” and emphasizes the company proposal for a 7.5 percent wage increase over three years. But CWA spokesperson Candice Johnson says the strike isn’t about wages: The quality and security of members’ jobs are the most important issues.
Johnson said members are tired of mandatory overtime and of being forced to work far away from their families. And they’re concerned about Verizon moving more jobs to overseas call centers in the Philippines, Mexico, and elsewhere. Verizon is proposing to close 17 mostly small call centers and offer workers assistance to relocate.
Before deciding to strike, CWA and IBEW bargained together for 10 months, well past the Aug. 1, 2015, expiration of their previous contracts.
Verizon’s decision to continue operating during the strike has contributed to some boisterous picket lines. The company says it trained at least 15,000 of its 120,000 nonunion employees to take over union member duties. Verizon provided a smartphone app to nonunion employees that allows them to take photos documenting time and location for forwarding to Verizon corporate security, along with an incident report. CWA reported that in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a Verizon lawyer struck two picketers with his Porsche, and one required medical attention. The company also says that 1,000 workers crossed the picket lines and returned to work, but CWA disputes that.
Nearly all the strikers are in Verizon’s East Coast copper and fiber landline operations, but Verizon is probably better known as the largest wireless phone service provider in the United States. The company’s wireless side is entirely nonunion except for 75 Verizon Wireless retail workers in Brooklyn, New York, and Everett, Massachusetts. They voted to join CWA in 2014 but never got a first union contract, and are also taking part in the strike.
The strike is the third one since Verizon formed in 2000 out of the merger of Bell Atlantic/NYNEX and GTE. The most recent strike, in 2012, lasted 13 days and ended with concessions from union workers, including no pension for new hires, just a 401(k); and a requirement that workers and retirees begin contributing to health insurance premiums for the first time.
To publicize the strike nationwide, CWA and IBEW called for a day of action May 5, and reported that more than 400 protests took place that day at Verizon locations in dozens of cities. CWA Local 7901 president Jeanette Turner says CWA’s international union is directing each local to target a particular wireless store for picketing. Portland Jobs With Justice will be coordinating support actions in the Portland area, Turner said. Portland Jobs With Justice executive director Diana Pei Wu says there will be a picket outside the downtown Verizon Wireless Store, 616 SW Broadway, every Thursday from 3 to 5 p.m. CWA and IBEW are asking people to not shop at Verizon Wireless stores when pickets are up, and they’re considering announcing a nationwide boycott of Verizon Wireless.
Company health care benefits were cut off as of May 1, but the unions say they won’t let members fall through the cracks. CWA has a $441 million strike fund built with member contributions. CWA members began receiving $200 a week after two weeks on strike, and $300 a week after three weeks; strike benefits will top out at $400 a week after the eighth week.
The unions also have a joint fund to assist striking members whose families have special needs or very difficult financial circumstances. Portland-headquartered IBEW Local 48 contributed $5,000. Members of the public can contribute to the fund at StandUpToVerizon.com/solidarity or by sending a check to Verizon Striking Families Solidarity Fund, c/o CWA, 501 3rd Street, NW, Washington, DC.