Union Leaders Squander Potential of Verizon Strike

Labor’s showdown at Verizon started like so many in the last few years, with the company taking for granted that it could walk on unions.

In contract negotiations, the employer demanded concessions of $1 billion a year from its unionized workers. These included freezing pensions of current employees and eliminating them for new hires, making workers pay a quarter of health care premiums, slashing wages in half for new workers, and cutting sick leave and other benefits. Verizon also insisted on removing all job security provisions, a green light to outsourcing.

This at a company that in the last four years made profits of $22.5 billion and paid its top five executives $258 million. This was a classic opportunity for workers to draw a line in the sand. Yet only two weeks into the strike, union officials sent everyone back to work. What happened?

Enough s too much, already!

Union members had had it. After a strike authorization vote of 91 percent, 35,000 Communications Workers of America (CWA) went on strike on August 7, joined by 10,000 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). The massive walkout covered the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states. Militancy was high, even including the use of roving pickets to confront supervisor-scabs on job sites.

Supporters across the U.S. flocked to picket Verizon Wireless stores. The outpour showed how ready U.S. workers are to resist the relentless attacks on labor.

And Verizon felt the heat. The huge takeaways insisted on by a company so profitable sparked public outrage. High-profile outages and significant delays in new installations threatened the company’s business in an industry with stiff competition.

Yet union officials were conciliatory from the start. The stated goal of the strike was to get Verizon back to the table to bargain “seriously” — a concept the two sides are bound to view totally differently.

CWA leaders compared the fight to the heroic revolts in Tunisia and Egypt and the fight of Wisconsin public workers that electrified the nation last winter. Supporters and union ranks clearly agreed with this comparison. But union officials killed any potential for the realization of their lofty vision.

With friends like these …

On August 22, the leaders of the two unions cut the strike short just as it was gaining steam. They claimed that management was now willing to talk. But Verizon made no indication it was backing down. And commentators started predicting that the company would win many of its demands.

Unfortunately, the pundits may be right. Strikes cannot be turned on and off like a faucet. Even though leafleting of wireless stores continues, calling union members back to work ruined the strike’s momentum. Now bosses can prepare for any future walkout. Verizon took none of their demanded concessions off the table, and extracted a promise for unions not to strike for 30 days. CWA and IBEW must also give a week’s notice of any strike after that! This agreement disarms the union membership!

The two unions certainly had different attitudes toward the strike. While CWA had a strike fund of $400 million, IBEW had none at all. Yet many supporters would have generously donated to a strike fund had they been asked.

Continuing the walkout and building on community support could have stopped the take-backs cold. It could also have given a huge shot in the arm to organizing the 80,000 non-union wireless workers, and strengthened labor’s position considerably.

Union leaders not only betrayed the power of the Verizon strike, but also the energy created by the Wisconsin fight-back movement. In selling the strike short, officials undermined the growing sense that working-class people can win!

How long will it be before labor finds its feet again and we have another watershed moment like the Republic Windows and Doors sit-down strike or the Wisconsin public worker upsurge?

Workers will never get anywhere with a labor leadership like this. More than ever, it’s urgent for union militants to speak out and tell it like it is.

• This article first appeared in the Freedom Socialist newspaper.

Megan Cornish worked at the Shelter Half G.I. coffeehouse in Tacoma, Wash., in the early 1970s. She can be reached at: MCornish@igc.org. Read other articles by Megan.