Tearing Down the Wall?  Big Organizing Challenge Remains after Temporary Truce at Verizon

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

Verizon’s executive vice-president for human resources wasn’t just referring to the company’s latest giveback demands — that will still be on the table, in some form, when bargaining with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) resumes next weekend.

Reed is an architect of Verizon’s long-term de-unionization strategy, a key corporate “objective” that has already reduced union density to 30 percent within the company.  So he provides a very timely reminder of what happened eleven years ago this summer when CWA and IBEW waged a two-week strike against concessions and for organizing rights that would have enabled both unions to grow on the Verizon Wireless (VZW) side of the company.

The CWA-IBEW 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 like now-retired CEO Ivan Seidenberg and Reed 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 cellular worker bargaining units in Boston were destroyed.  In New York City, a 70-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 80,000.  (Eleven years ago, VZW already employed more than 50,000 non-union workers.)

In 2000, after much intensive membership education about the future 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 was helping a group of 400 VZW workers build a CWA organizing committee at a VZW customer service center in Woburn, Mass.  Workers on the committee were already facing illegal threats, harassment, and management surveillance of their activities, as later confirmed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) which issued an unfair labor practice complaint against the company (one of many over the years).

Double-Crossed in 2000

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 wireless locations from Maine to Virginia.  In a post-strike commentary for the Boston Globe, I quoted then-VZW official Marc Reed about how “our agreement simply provides an expedited procedure for employers to make an informed choice” between unionizing and staying non-union.

Verizon quickly reneged on this deal, in ways that thwarted employee free choice at every turn during the four-year life of the agreement (and ever since).  Follow-up negotiations on appropriate bargaining units for retail VZW store employees in the 12-state region bogged down in a morass of arbitration proceedings that made NLRB elections look “expedited” in comparison.

Meanwhile, the Woburn VZW call center and two others in New York and New Jersey, where CWA also had active committees, were all shut down.  The customer service work handled these 1,500 workers was shifted to call centers in North and South Carolina.  By no coincidence, both are right-to-work states (with the lowest union density in the country) and safely outside the geographical scope of VZ’s organizing rights agreement with CWA and IBEW.

Like the shift of Boeing aircraft manufacturing work to South Carolina in retaliation for Machinist strike militancy in Seattle — a management action now being challenged by the NLRB — Verizon’s runaway call center maneuver sent a powerful message to other VZW workers around the country: union activity leads to lost jobs.  As a result, not a single VZW worker ever got organized using the union recognition procedure negotiated in 2000.

Verizon’s bad faith bargaining about card check and neutrality was followed by fitful CWA attempts to punish the company for its misbehavior.  These mainly involved branding VZW as an industry rogue and urging labor-friendly customers to switch to Cingular (since re-branded as AT&T Mobility).  To its credit, AT&T (which sought and won health care concessions from CWA’s landline members in 2009-10) 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 bargaining rights and contract protection 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, after a multi-year, cross-border strategic campaign that has yet to secure an organizing rights deal.  Another longtime union-buster in the field is Sprint, which uses a media-savvy reseller called Credo to dupe well-meaning progressives into signing up for its cellular service because AT&T and Verizon are “socially irresponsible” and Credo is not.  The non-union Credo’s hypocrisy about workers’ rights reached new heights last week when its “campaign manager,” Matt Lockshin, sent out an email blast about “bad corporate actors squeezing money out of their own employees.”  He was talking about VZW, not Sprint/Credo, of course.

Carrier Switch Not Easy

This confusing muddle of consumer choices makes “union label” marketing of AT&T quite challenging.  On the east coast, customers have long associated Verizon with union news (like the coverage generated since August 6) and, in some cases, just assumed VZW was unionized like the rest of the company.  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 who wanted to help faced penalties for extricating themselves from existing wireless plans ahead of expiration.  (One Bay Area strike sympathizer who got a union leaflet 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.)

So the recent (and now apparently suspended) community-labor protests at VZW stores didn’t even explicitly push carrier switch, after many years of CWA investment in that strategy.  During this month’s strike, IBEW-CWA picketing of nearly 1,000 retail outlets was a necessary part of the rank-and-file militancy which succeeded in getting management back into talks that “could be meaningful,” as President Larry Cohen told the New York Times on Saturday.  In a CWA phone briefing by Cohen and others, strikers learned that their VZW store forays had even generated a flurry of calls from non-union workers expressing interest in renewed organizing.

This is an encouraging sign — particularly since the 2011 fight, unlike the work stoppage in 2000, was not framed as a defense of VZW workers’ rights or an attempt to end VZ’s overall double-breasting by “Tearing Down the Wall” between shrinking IBEW-CWA bargaining units and growing non-union subsidiaries like VZW and Verizon Business (VZB).  In past walkouts, like the four-month strike against NYNEX in 1989, the picket-line hassles endured by 2,500 non-striking customer service reps in New England (who were then unorganized) made subsequent recruitment overtures to them more difficult, post-settlement.  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 Board election and/or card check process (all favorable conditions missing at VZW today).

In 2007-8, CWA and IBEW developed a better model for breaching “the wall,” at least in one place.  The two unions conducted a patient 18-month campaign to organize 600 non-union technicians in the northeast employed by VZB, a subsidiary acquired from the wholly non-union MCI/Worldcom.  Their demand for union recognition was based on an unofficial “card check” demonstrating strong majority support.  Techs from the landline side built strong personal ties and relationships of solidarity with their non-union counterparts at VZB as part of this campaign.  When VZ insisted on an NLRB election, the Board was successfully bypassed because the struggle for recognition at VZB was then incorporated into the CWA-IBEW fight for a new contract three years ago.  The previously non-union VZB workers won CWA-IBEW contract coverage as part of the 2008 agreement now being renegotiated (and joined the strike this month).

Another Way to “Tear Down the Wall”?

For reasons that remain murky at the moment, CWA and IBEW coupled their strike suspension over the weekend with a very ill-advised curtailment of VZW-related activity by labor and community allies.  Many local groups had already “adopted” a local retail outlet for their continuing attention.  The back-to-work agreement negotiated with Verizon only suspends striker picketing at these locations, as of Saturday; but the message immediately conveyed to Jobs with Justice activists and other union members was “that support activities should now end,” as UNITE HERE president John Wilhelm put it in a “stand down” message Saturday night.  National JWJ Director Sarita Gupta reinforced this impression further by announcing that “all leafleting at stores, work sites, and other events” must “cease” when in fact none of that is barred by the back-to-work agreement.

In contrast, one longtime JWJ local leader has already offered “to keep fighting until (IBEW-CWA) have a signed contract.”  He points out correctly 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 struggle doesn’t just disappear from everyone’s radar screen.  In addition, if each local union, inside or outside of CWA and IBEW, plus their JWJ allies, proceeded with the plan to “adopt” VZW retail store (and call center) locations around the country they might, over time, be able to build the kind of worker-to-worker relationships that would facilitate later unionization.

The continuing failure to unionize those 80,000 workers is the Achilles heel of the Verizon unions in this round of bargaining and any future ones.  The givebacks management still wants to extract from IBEW-CWA, in talks that resume Sept. 28, mirror the conditions unilaterally imposed on the non-union majority of Verizon employees.  On the “Wal-Mart” side of the company, its “associates” have “merit” pay, costly medical benefits, no pensions, job rights, or grievance procedure.  Introducing some variation on that package in landline, for active employees, retirees, and/or new hires, is still the company’s goal — along with keeping its “legacy” unions safely walled in.

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 from Haymarket Books.

| Print