Requiem For A Heavyweight, Telephone Labor Division

Former IBEW Local 2222 Vice President Jerry Leary was laid to rest yesterday under the booms of two telephone company bucket trucks, with a union banner strung between. In the face of grotesque caricatures of unionism projected today, it’s easy to forget what being a rank-and-file member means in the culture of solidarity and friendship at the best local unions. Photo: Rand Wilson.

Twenty years ago this December, the large Dorchester, Massachusetts, clan of Jerry “Judgie” Leary was, like many other telephone worker families in the Northeast, not exactly flush with cash for Christmas presents.

Jerry and 60,000 other members of the Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Communications Workers (CWA) had just spent four grueling, impoverishing months on the picket line battling NYNEX, the regional telecom giant now known as Verizon.

Memories of that strike include first-time-ever visits to food banks, the loss of job-based medical benefits because NYNEX cut them off, and the dismissal, suspension, or arrest of hundreds of union activists in New York and New England. In Westchester County, New York, a CWA picket captain with several young children was hit by a car driven by a scab and died of brain injuries; in New Hampshire, an IBEW striker was killed in an industrial accident while trying to do an unfamiliar factory job to feed his family.

But during that long ordeal the local union that Jerry served for many years afterwards as vice president and business agent made many new friends. IBEW Local 2222 became well-known in the local labor movement and in political circles outside the predominantly Irish-American neighborhoods that once produced the bulk of Boston’s police, firefighters, telephone workers, and utility workers.

The issue in 1989 was health care cost-shifting. Because CWA and IBEW strikers parried the company’s proposed givebacks by demanding “health care for all,” they soon had Reverend Jesse Jackson at their side, plus striking coal miners and Eastern Airlines pilots. The NYNEX strike support effort in Boston became a “rainbow coalition” ranging from the National Organization for Women to Physicians for a National Health Program. In a rare role reversal for the 1980s, the strikers actually won and the company lost.

To this day, in recognition of the role that solidarity played in that victory, Local 2222 remains an active part of both the Boston Labor Council, where Jerry Leary was a longtime delegate, and the more diverse activist coalition known as Jobs with Justice.

PREMIUM HEALTH CARE

Thanks to their sacrifices 20 years ago and a willingness to fight in subsequent rounds of bargaining (which included a 14-day strike in 2000), Verizon workers in the Northeast still don’t make any premium contributions for their individual or family coverage. It’s an arrangement now enjoyed by only a fraction of the labor force. So, as part of their misbegotten “health care reform” scheme in Washington, D.C., some Senate Democrats and the Obama administration are now demonizing “Cadillac plans” like the one at Verizon and trying to slap a not-very-helpful excise tax on them. Click here for more on that controversy.)

Jerry Leary never owned a Cadillac but he did need good union-negotiated benefits when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer last spring. That unexpected blow to a seemingly hale and hearty NYNEX strike veteran didn’t stop him from being much involved in preparations for a big anti-layoff march in early October that brought nearly a thousand union members to the front door of Verizon’s headquarters and other protest targets in downtown Boston, like the Hyatt Hotel. But Jerry’s condition did lead to medical complications that imposed considerable financial and emotional strain on his wife, six children, and large extended family.

To show members’ appreciation for Jerry’s many years of service to the union and “his lifelong commitment to Dorchester and its various sports, civic, neighborhood, or religious organizations,” Local 2222 set up a fundraising website. Ace mobilization committee member Donna Bohan began making plans for a January 29 benefit party at Florian Hall, operated by Firefighters Local 718 and the site of numerous mass meetings during the 1989 walkout. Unfortunately, the fundraiser is now going to be held without the guest of honor. On December 11 Jerry Leary died at the age of 57.

COMMON CARING

In many unions, it’s not uncommon to toast, at great dues-payer expense, some member of the officialdom or shell out big bucks for the “times” held by cash-hungry politicians (as their fundraisers are called here in Boston). But just as Jerry was known, far and wide, for his selfless volunteering, the January 29 event for the Leary family is a typical expression of IBEW caring for those in need, regardless of rank or title in the union.

In the last few months alone, due to Donna’s tireless efforts, tens of thousands of dollars have been raised for one Local 2222 member left crippled after surgery and the family of another who died in a skiing accident. In myriad ways, large and small, the local is always extending a helping hand and leaving a lasting impression.

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For example, Jerry’s close friend Myles Calvey, the always-in-motion business manager of Local 2222, attends as many wakes as a Catholic priest, where his warm presence is always appreciated by bereaved family members and friends. Local President Eddie “Fitzy” Fitzpatrick, another 1989 strike leader, is a legendary figure in 2222’s “employee assistance” program; his personal interventions have saved the lives, marriages, and phone company careers of countless workers caught in the grip of substance abuse. And, of course, a legion of other IBEW business agents and stewards, like recently retired mobilization coordinator Dave Reardon, have devoted thousands of hours to answering phone calls, filing grievances, and resolving problems related to the Verizon contract and its hard-won safety net of medical and pension benefits, disability coverage, and family and medical leave protections.

CROSSED BUCKET TRUCKS

All of the above and many more were at Jerry Leary’s funeral yesterday at St. Anne’s, the parish in Dorchester where he was born, raised, and lived his whole life. After Mass, a long line of cars headed down Neponset Avenue, past the Boston Firefighters honor guard and the Local 2222 union hall in Lower Mills where Myles, Jerry, Fitzy, Dave, Donna, and others have served the membership.

Our destination this time was Cedar Grove Cemetery, a mile or so down the road. How many people have ever been interred, there or anywhere, after passing under the raised and arched booms of two telephone company bucket trucks, with a union banner strung between the two?

I don’t know. But my guess is that Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, big company man that he is, won’t be laid to rest in similar fashion when his number is up. Ivan’s $20 million a year in salary, bonuses, and stock options will buy a different send-off. It will be far less reflective of real life at the phone company, like the biting cold at Jerry’s gravesite that was a familiar companion for those who spend every New England winter climbing poles or splicing cable underground.

In the face of the grotesque caricatures of trade unionism projected by Verizon and other firms today in their unrelenting campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act, it’s easy to forget (or never know) what being a rank-and-file member means in the culture of mutual aid and protection, solidarity and friendship, that exists in the best local unions.

As Chicago labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan noted years ago in his book Which Side Are You On?, that organizational connection doesn’t just provide better-than-average pay and benefits. For union activists, it makes you part of a distinct “counter-culture” that continues to contest—even if imperfectly—the dominance of competitive individualism. Big business (Verizon included) fears and hates this counter-culture, far more than any stereotypical working class Joe might have disliked the Woodstock generation 40 years ago.

Strong unions are deeply rooted in the workplace and community; simply by negotiating and enforcing contracts, they “interfere” with “management of the business.” Employers thus see them, as top Verizon managers have long viewed 2222, as a rival for “control of the company.” And that explains why Verizon has done so much to downsize, dislocate, and contain the workforce represented by this stalwart defender of “legacy contracts” and the job rights that come with them.

The collective ties that bind co-workers “on the property,” as they say at 2222, are allegiances forged over many years of helping each other out, in countless ways, on the job and off. They represent a standing rebuff to the demands for corporate loyalty and obedience from Seidenberg and his army of headquarters bean-counters.

To see the difference, in death as well as life, one needed to look no further than the huge crowd of mourners, many with IBEW Local 2222 stickers on their cars, accompanying Brother Jerry Leary to his final resting place yesterday. His son Patrick’s moving recollections from the altar of St. Anne’s about a life well-spent—about a father doing good for his family, his neighborhood and city, and his beloved community of Boston telephone workers—brought tears to the eyes of many. In the back of the church, filled with hundreds of people, were many “outside plant” technicians attending in their work clothes.

Until recently, Patrick was one of them, too. But now Jerry’s son is no longer on the Verizon payroll, a victim of layoffs this fall in New England. That job-cutting represents the latest threat to telephone labor as a union-organized entity in the Northeast, not the least because it deprives both IBEW and CWA of younger rank and filers able to fill the big shoes left behind by the likes of Jerry Leary.


As a CWA International Representative, Steve Early worked closely with IBEW and CWA members in New England on the 1989 NYNEX strike and many other contract campaigns. He is the author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home.

Steve Early
Steve Early is a member of the Labor Notes Policy Committee. He can be reached at lsupport@aol.com

Comments

PaulFeeney (not verified) | 12/22/09

Ahh. What would the blogosphere be without self righteous keyboard warriors who fashion themselves as legitimate authors who always pretend to know more than they actually do?

GregoryAButler's post below, is a window into the sanctimonious views of a linguistic bomb thrower, who operates under the delusion that his weapon of choice, "shocking prose", will bring an end to big bad union power and once again deliver the proverbial "power to the people." Quoting Brutus, and referencing Cesar is a well adapted defense mechanism by this published Author as he fights a lifelong, self loathing battle against the social structure that has always viewed him as a nothing more than a union thug contstruction monkey. Butler's flawed cognitive path leads him to act out against this stereotype by attacking all those whom he fears he is associated with in the larger social construct.

Though this has probably worked well in the past for Butler, he has unfortunately taken aim at a target that he cannot see through his scope. Butler has, through his ill-advised posting on this site, insulted an individual that is worthy of reverence and praise. In doing so, he has attacked a local and its members, that displayed last week the true differences between a union and it's corporate employer. The 19 lines of rhetoric that Butler has posted above, is an assault on a deceased worker and his friends that understand the meaning of sacrifice, and dertimination, while exhibiting the utmost concern for each other and their families.

The Funeral of Jerry Leary, was anything but elaborate. In fact, the perfection of the ceremonies were its imperfections. A friend to many was laid to rest as he lived his life, surrounded by his family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. Though Butler, possibly due to his own feelings of general inadaquacy, chooses to characterize Leary's funeral in a certain fashion, the reality is much different. The Catholic Church that day was filled with the music of a solo vocalist, and a single organist, butressed only by the collective voices of a faithful gathering. That gathering, a mix of men and women from all sorts of backgrounds. Many of Jerry's co-workers turned out that frigid morning in their Carhart overalls, stained from the manholes that they toiled in only hours before. Not to mourn a King, Pope, or "Telecomm. Local Leader", but to celebrate the life of a friend who sacrificed so much for the union that meant so much to him.

Many of his co-workers, and fellow union activists recalled his tireless activism on behalf of workers throughout the Boston area and the Commonwealth. Not parochial in his belief that all workers demand respect in the workplace, Jerry has been there on the front lines during the struggles of workers from many different unions, and organizations. Perhaps it was Steve Early's account of the funeral procession that so bothered Butler. If he had only asked however, he could have been made aware of the incredible struggles that the City of Boston firefighters have endured in their tenuos relationship with the Mayor of Boston, as well as the unrelenting support that Leary provided to these workers despite incredible political pressure to do otherwise. As Leary's son Patrick pointed out so beatifully that day, one will never forget the Summer of 2004 when Leary stood with his fellow telephone workers as they refused to cross a picket line manned by Boston Firefighters, and Police as they pressured the Mayor prior to the Democratic National Convention. In Butler's world, it would have been acceptable to simply forget such loyalty. An honor guard was appropriate, and fitting for a activist that stood up against his own international to do what was right.

I would be negligent in my own post if I did not point out Butler's hypocrisy. He points out "endemic nepotism" in the labor movement and presumably, we can gather that Buttler is opposed to such practices. Yet he vilifies Leary for not keeping "his own kid on the payroll." Would the author have preferred for Leary to exercise the strength of his position by saving only "his own kid." Butler attempted, and once again failed, to attach a stereotype to an individual that did do the right thing for the membership, and that fought until his dying day for all workers, not just those that shared a name, parish, or local.

Leary, as Early's article pointed out was a true hero for all workers and deserving of the pedestal placed underneath him since his passing. A pedestal not granted by title, or bought with money; A pedestal not lifted by subordinates, or supported by favors. The memory of Jerry "Judgie" Leary and the lessons learned by his life have been placed on a pedestal that will be carried by the people whose lives he touched and the workers he dedicated himself to. Telephone workers, police, firefighters, construction workers, professional men and women, will all share the load of the pedestal that carries this labor heavyweight.

Perhaps you will appreciate the words of Theodore Roosevelt who opined that: "It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles of where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

The difference Mr. Butler is that Jerry Leary fought in the arena, giving of himself in each battle. You, stand outside the arena, wait for the strong man to die, and offer unsolicited comments in an attempt to appear noble in your own right. In reality though, you are among the cold and timid souls, who will never experience the love and support that the Leary family felt last week. In the end, I suppose, that is Justice.

GREGORYABUTLER (not verified) | 12/22/09

Well, this sounds like a very elaborate funeral for a high ranking union official - the labor equivalent of the Inspector's Funerals cops get when they die in the line of duty.

But why exactly is this guy a "labor heavyweight"?

During Brother Leary's tenure, telephone work went from a highly paid overwhelmingly unionized job to a largely non union job, with layoffs, two tier wages and benefit cuts for the few remaining union telecom workers, and with both the IBEW and the CWA utterly and overwhelmingly failing to unionize the rapidly growing mobile phone sector.

The telecom industry is rapidly growing, but the telecom sectors of the IBEW and the CWA are rapidly shrinking.

Since Brother Leary was the leader of a major telecom local during this era of defeat and union decay, it's fair to say he had a little bit to do with that decay.

It's sad that he died (but that's true with any death, from Senator Kennedy to the homeless guy who sits on the corner drinking malt liquor) but why exactly should labor activists celebrate this guy's life?

Learning from his mistakes - and the mistakes of John J. Barry, Morty Bahr and all the other folks who were in charge of the store at the time of that great collapse of unionism in the telephone industry - would seem to be a more productive task than putting them on pedestals, like you appear to be doing with this Leary guy.

Hell, Brother Leary couldn't even keep his own kid on the Verizon payroll!

And, as anybody who knows the endemic nepotism of the American labor movement well can confirm, if a union leader can't even protect the job of his own child, who's job CAN he save?

I know it's bad to speak ill of the dead - but, like Brutus said about Cesar, perhaps we should come to bury them, not to praise them.