August 2011, Week 4


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Mon, 22 Aug 2011 20:40:05 -0400
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Big Organizing Challenge Remains After Temporary Truce at

STEVE EARLY      |  AUGUST 22, 2011

Published on Labor Notes (http://labornotes.org) 

Strike supporters like these in Long Beach, California,
were asked to call off the pickets while the unions
plan the next phase of their strategy. Photo: Slobodan

The striking unions at Verizon made it clear from the
beginning that they might return to work without a
settlement if they were convinced management would get
serious at the bargaining table.

But the 45,000 union members returning to work on
Tuesday after a two-week strike would do well to
remember the words of Verizon's Marc Reed when picket
lines were taken down Saturday. Said Reed: "We remain
committed to our objectives."

The company's vice president for human resources wasn't
just referring to Verizon's onerous giveback
demands--which will still be on the table, even if
winnowed down, when bargaining with the Communications
Workers (CWA) and Electrical Workers (IBEW) resumes
next weekend.

Reed is a major architect of Verizon's long-term
de-unionization strategy that has already achieved the
"objective" of cutting union density in half--to only 30
percent within the company.

Standing Down?

In a fashion that created confusion and some
consternation over the weekend, CWA and IBEW told their
growing network of labor and community supporters to
end public protests directed at Verizon Wireless (VZW),
where Reed was long a top executive.

Many local groups had already "adopted" a local VZW
retail store for their continuing attention. The
back-to-work agreement negotiated with Verizon only
suspends striker picketing at these locations, but the
message immediately conveyed to Jobs with Justice
chapters and other union members was that "support
activities should now end," as UNITE HERE President
John Wilhelm put it in a "stand down" message sent to
hundreds of activists Saturday night.

From Washington, JWJ national director Sarita Gupta
announced that "all leafleting at stores, work sites,
and other events" must "cease," when in fact such
activity is not barred by the back-to-work agreement.

At least one longtime Jobs with Justice local leader
has already offered, in contrast, "to keep fighting
until [IBEW-CWA] have a signed contract." He pointed
out that Verizon union supporters "have the public's
attention so we could continue with Workers Rights
Board letters, store leafleting, etc." to make sure
that the unfinished VZ contract struggle doesn't
disappear from everyone's radar screen.

In addition, if each already involved local union,
inside or outside of CWA and IBEW, plus their allies in
Jobs with Justice, proceeded with their local adoption
of VZW retail and call center locations around the
country, they might be able to build ongoing
relationships of solidarity with the non-union workers
inside. Over time, this networking and contact making
could lead to building committees inside and a revived
fight for bargaining rights at VZW, a longstanding
union goal.

The continuing failure to unionize more than 80,000
workers at VZW and other non-union subsidiaries is the
Achilles heel of organized labor at Verizon. The
givebacks management still wants to extract from
IBEW-CWA, in talks that resume next Sunday, mirror the
conditions unilaterally imposed on the non-union
majority of Verizon employees.

Those non-union "associates" have "merit" pay, costly
medical benefits, and no pensions, job rights, or
grievance procedure. For Marc Reed and new Verizon CEO
Lowell McAdam, that's exactly the kind of employment
conditions that union-represented employees, retirees,
and new hires should have in some form, as well--along
with weakened unions that operate only on the company's
wireline side.

Wireless Organizing Challenges

In a CWA phone briefing yesterday, strikers were told
that their picketing at 1,000 VZW stores had generated
a flurry of calls from non-union workers wanting to
organize. (According to the company's numerous
injunction requests, protests at the retail stores also
sharply reduced sales at a number of stores.)

The wireless worker response was an encouraging sign.
In past strikes, like the four-month walkout at
Verizon's predecessor NYNEX in 1989, the picket-line
hassles endured by 2,500 non-union customer service
reps in New England made subsequent recruitment
overtures to them more difficult. In fact, it took
another five to ten years for these call center
workers, serving landline customers, to be recruited by
CWA and IBEW, even with the help of negotiated
neutrality, an uncontested National Labor Relations
Board (NLRB) election, and/or a card check process--all
favorable conditions missing on Verizon's wireless side

Unlike the last work stoppage 11 years ago, this
month's walk-out was not framed, in part, as a defense
of VZW workers' rights. Although mentioned in the
unions' pre-strike mobilization materials, the need to
"Tear Down the Wall" between IBEW-CWA bargaining units
and the company's "Wal-Mart" side was not stressed as a
theme either, as it was in the 2007-08 Verizon contract
campaign. As part of that effort, CWA and IBEW did win
joint recognition three years ago for 600 technicians
employed by Verizon Business, another non-union

In 2000, CWA and IBEW made organizing the unorganized a
key part of their strategy at Verizon, waging a
two-week strike against concessions and for organizing
rights. Their aim was a deal that would have enabled
both unions to grow on the wireless side of the

The contract campaign in 2000 highlighted Verizon's
record of union-busting when workers tried to organize
in wireless call centers and retail stores like the
ones widely picketed during the last two weeks.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, top Verizon officials had
made it clear that collective bargaining would have no
place in their share of America's fast-growing and
hugely profitable wireless market. VZW now has 90
million subscribers. Its chief rival is AT&T Mobility,
the only fully unionized firm in wireless.

In the corporate mergers and restructuring that led to
the creation of Verizon a decade ago, two IBEW wireless
bargaining units in Boston were destroyed. In New York
City, a 75-member CWA cell site technician unit,
originally organized in 1989, managed to survive this
concerted assault, but remains the only unionized
portion of a VZW workforce that now numbers about

In 2000, after much intensive membership education
about the implications of "the wall" Verizon was
erecting between its landline and wireless operations,
CWA and IBEW struck not just to defend the pensions,
health benefits, and job security of existing members.
They also tried to win contract language that would
restrain Verizon's aggressive and often illegal
interference with wireless worker organizing.

During preparations for the 2000 strike, I helped a
group of VZW workers build a CWA organizing committee
at a 400-worker customer service center in Woburn,
Massachusetts. Workers faced illegal threats,
harassment, and surveillance of their activities, as
later confirmed by the NLRB, which issued an unfair
labor practice complaint against the company, one of
many over the years.

Double-Crossed at VZW

The August 2000 strike by 75,000 CWA and IBEW members
was settled with what we thought at the time was a
great union breakthrough: card-check recognition and
management neutrality in any future organizing at VZW
locations from Maine to Virginia. As Marc Reed
explained the four-year deal: "Our agreement simply
provides an expedited procedure for employers to make
an informed choice"--between unionizing and staying

Verizon quickly reneged on this written commitment, in
ways that thwarted employee free choice at every turn
and ever since. Follow-up negotiations on appropriate
bargaining units for VZW retail store employees in the
12-state region quickly bogged down in a morass of
arbitration proceedings that made NLRB elections look
"expedited" in comparison.

Meanwhile, the Woburn call center and two others in New
York and New Jersey, where CWA also had active
committees, were all shut down. The work handled by
these 1,500 workers was shifted to North and South
Carolina, both right-to-work states and safely outside
the geographical scope of the unions' organizing rights

Verizon's retaliation sent a powerful message to other
VZW workers around the country: union activity leads to
lost jobs. Not a single VZW worker was ever organized
using the recognition procedure negotiated in 2000.

Carrier Switch Not Easy

Verizon's bad-faith bargaining about card check and
neutrality was followed by fitful CWA attempts, over
the next few years, to punish the company for its
misbehavior. This "leverage campaign" tried to brand
VZW as an industry rogue and get labor-friendly
customers to switch to more union-friendly Cingular,
now known as AT&T Mobility. To its credit, AT&T has not
interfered with wireless worker organizing during the
last decade. Using a negotiated procedure similar to
the one VZW flouted, about 40,000 AT&T Mobility workers
have been able to win contracts in call centers, retail
stores, and technical units across the country.

In the rest of wireless, VZW is not alone in its
anti-unionism. Other major players include T-Mobile,
which has 20,000 workers, all of them non-union except
for 30 technicians in Connecticut who just won a narrow
NLRB election victory.

Another longtime union-buster in the field is Sprint.
Sprint uses a media-savvy reseller called Credo to dupe
well-meaning progressives into signing up for its
cellular service by promising to share a small portion
of its profits with good causes. Credo's ads claim that
AT&T and Verizon are "socially irresponsible" and Credo
is not. Non-union Credo's hypocrisy about worker rights
reached new heights last week when it sent out an email
blast about "bad corporate actors [Verizon] squeezing
money out of their own employees."

(For more on the Credo scam, which is a great source of
ad revenue for left/liberal publications, go here.)

Union Label

This confusing muddle of consumer choices makes "union
label" marketing of AT&T quite challenging,
particularly since East Coast customers have long
associated Verizon with high-profile strikes and
bargaining, leading many to assume that VZW is
unionized as well. Even other labor organizations--like
SEIU's huge East Coast affiliate, 1199/United
Healthcare Workers East-- failed to switch carriers,
sticking with VZW out of ignorance or indifference.
Individual customers faced penalties for extricating
themselves from their plans ahead of expiration.

One Bay Area strike sympathizer who got a union leaflet
this month with the message "Don't Shop @ Verizon
Wireless!" quickly discovered that it would cost her
$620 to cancel her account with VZW and take her
business to AT&T.

In the recent community-labor outreach at VZW
stores--hopefully only temporarily suspended--switching
to AT&T was even not even mentioned in such leaflets,
despite many years of CWA investment in that strategy.

As CWA and IBEW enter the uncharted waters of what
could still be an intermittent strike (that is, going
back out if bargaining breaks down again), continued
mobilization on the job and in the community is
essential to keep maximum pressure on Verizon.

All the creative, militant, and even Facebook-assisted
strike activity since August 6 needs to be translated
into "inside strategies" that make the company pay a
continued price for its giveback demands and
foot-dragging in negotiations.

Both rank-and-file activists and their community-labor
supporters will have more success organizing the
unorganized within Verizon if they tackle this
longer-term project together, with no let-up, until the
job gets done.


Steve Early was involved in CWA-IBEW telephone worker
organizing, bargaining, contract campaigns, and strikes
in New England from 1980 to 2007. For more background
on "bargaining to organize" in telecom, see The Civil
Wars in U.S. Labor.


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