by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage
NEW HARTFORD – They’re striking from Massachusetts to Virginia. The Verizon Wireless worker’s strike kicked off on April 13 and today, members of the workers’ union, CWA (Communications Workers of America) Local 1126, marched in conjunction with IBEW along with several other unions and dozens of supporters outside of the Verizon store on Seneca Turnpike in New Hartford.
The contract for Verizon Wireless wire line workers expired last August and the negotiations have been ongoing since. Of the near 40,000 workers represented in those contract negotiations, about 150 are represented by the area’s CWA local from the Utica metro down to Oneonta. Locals in other upstate cities from Buffalo to Albany have also taken action.
With Verizon not really budging in negotiations, a meeting between both Verizon and union higher-ups was attempted to try and narrow down what was the most important to both sides. For Verizon, it was medical benefits. While the CWA put up a proposal that met the company at what it needed to cover medical expenses, that proposal came with the understanding that when both sides came back to the table, the workers’ issues would be brought up and Verizon’s other demands would be off the table. When both sides reconvened, however, Verizon sought more cost-saving measures and the union decided to walk, and thus began the largest labor strike in the US since 2011.
“There’s a lot of stuff on the table right now that really affects quality of life for our members, Verizon’s employee’s,” said Pete Dawes, the Executive Vice President of CWA Local 1126 in Utica.
Dawes elaborated on the extended periods that workers spend away from home on assignment fixing fiber optic networks as far away as New Jersey and Boston:
“(The workers) can be transferred anywhere in New York State for up to three weeks at a time, we signed up for that and that’s fine. The trouble is, when Super Storm Sandy hit down in New York City, Verizon used it as an excuse to abandon that copper network and switch over to fiber optics. They used our people, and people across upstate, to go do that. These guys were going out three to six weeks at a time, home for three, and then back out for three to six weeks. So they were away from their families for almost half a year … this just ended last summer. That stays (in the contract), and we’re okay with that, we bargained for that a long time ago. Now what (Verizon) wants to do, on top of that type of rotation, is add two 60-day rotations out of state, because they want to build Boston and they want to build New Jersey.”
The workers have taken notice of a company that has made record profits, $39 billion in the last three years, and yet has trimmed up to 40 percent of its workforce in the last decade. In keeping with the trends of late-stage capitalism, increased corporate profits are not being used to increase the workforce or give line workers, some of the lowest paid in the company, a raise. Instead, Verizon has plans to outsource up to 5,000 jobs to Mexico and The Philippines as well as outsource to low-wage, non-union contractors at home.
“Verizon made $1.8 billion last month, they can afford to hire workers in Boston,” added Dawes.
Other issues that have sent employees walking include Verizon’s efforts to cap pensions at 30 years and do away with either employee pensions or 401(k) plans. Health care costs for retirees on fixed incomes could also raise in the future if Verizon gets its way.
“(Retirees) were promised a certain package when they retired, they got it, now the company needs to stick with it,” said Dawes.
For families with striking members, it’s been tough and looks to get more so. Not only is their well-being affected by Verizon’s decisions, not to mention disruption to their family units, but those on strike are no longer receiving paychecks and Verizon has said that it will cancel the health care plans of all striking workers on May 1.
One of the brighter spots during this time has been the solidarity shown to these workers and their families by other unions. Locals from UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) and NYSNA (New York State Nurses Association) were also in attendance, donning red shirts for the cause. The MVCC Professionals Association, an ancillary of NYSUT, the state teachers union, along with members of the IWW (International Workers of the World) showed their support by marching as well.
Dawes spoke about the solidarity:
“We’ve had unbelievable support. The CNY Labor Council has been coordinating everything for us … we have steel workers here today … we’ve had multiple teachers unions on the picket lines on Broad Street.”
The public support has been phenomenal, we’ve got people that have been dropping off food, people driving by honking … after fifteen days, just someone driving by honking really lifts you up. The media, I don’t know if they’ve taken our side, but they’re asking intelligent questions this time, and the public is just interested in what’s going on. I think that the middle class is finally starting to realize that unions aren’t a bad thing, and we need more.”
As for public opinion of Verizon, it’s declining in the wake of the strike and the coming to light of the company’s negotiation tactics.
For now, the strike continues. The workers are committed to getting a fair deal from Verizon and have even received support from up to 20 members of the US Senate, who sent a letter to Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam urging him to “act as a responsible corporate citizen and negotiate a fair contract with the employees that make your company’s success possible.”
While Verizon has stated earlier today that they have put forth their “best and final offer”, one of the proposals, protection from layoffs, is contingent on the company having more control over managing and deploying workers as well as “workforce flexibility changes”.
As these present challenges to the well-being of their middle class employees, union members refused to back down.