Reformers Sweep Vote in Verizon Union

Verizon, look out—there’s a new union in town.

A reform group took over a big New York City telecom local yesterday, pledging to re-energize the union. The election took place against the backdrop of a wrenching contract fight that’s dragged on since a two-week strike at Verizon in August.

Communications Workers Local 1101’s election results showed a sweep for the “Rebuild 1101” slate, which won most races by a two-thirds margin.

Turnout hit a record 46 percent in the nearly 7,000-member local. Winners called the result a “message to employers” that members “stand united against the employers who are coming after us every day.”

Verizon is the biggest of those employers, and the telecom giant has had its unionized workforce in the crosshairs all year. (Local 1101 members also work at AT&T cell phone stores, hospital rehab centers, and a Long Island university.)

After the hard-fought August strike, Verizon backed away from a third of its 100 concession demands, scrapping plans to cut the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, for instance.

But major concessions that would take almost $1 billion from 45,000 East Coast Verizon workers are still on the table, including dramatically higher health costs, destruction of pensions, and zero job security.

In the last four and a half years, Verizon has made $22.5 billion. A new report from Citizens for Tax Justice last week said the company’s bottom line has been fattened by aggressive tax avoidance.

The company paid a negative 2.9 percent tax rate between 2008 and 2010, a subsidy worth $12.3 billion. In New Jersey, the company is trying to use an obscure 85-year-old law to avoid millions in property taxes next year—a tactic it’s also employed in Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina.

Verizon disciplined 80 members during the strike and refused to return them to work. Anger over these lingering cases and the fact that CWA and the Electrical Workers (IBEW) settled the strike without a contract added to the resentments propelling the Rebuild 1101 slate.

“People felt we had a boot on the company’s throat and we let it off,” said Kevin Condy, the newly elected secretary-treasurer. He said the former local leaders called for a cooling-off period after the strike and lost momentum, while the national union was urging members to re-engage.

On Its Heels

Local 1101 members say they relish the opportunity to escalate the fight at Verizon. They say ousted leaders have failed to mobilize members around contracts and when the strike neared, were absent from worksites.

Meanwhile, the Rebuild slate was holding weekly rallies at company headquarters and, earlier in the year, filling buses to solidarity rallies for state workers under assault in New Jersey (who are fellow CWA members).

“People saw the difference,” said James Stone, a Rebuild slate supporter. “Those guys wanted to rest on their laurels, and we were mobilizing when no one else was. They would come to our building to see what to do.”

Eleven of 13 previous executive board members were retirees, and members complained they showed little concern for the day-to-day fight on the job.

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“My (business agent) is so far out of the loop—he has no idea what I'm talking about,” said Ron Spaulding, an incoming business agent. Business agents work three days for the union and two for the company, and many chose to avoid outside jobs during the company's two days. “I don’t want to be that guy,” Spaulding said. “I’m going to grab my tools, go out there, and pull cable.”

The election took place under the eye of a monitor appointed by the national union, after a union investigation revealed the local’s top leaders had engaged in “a number of highly questionable practices involving compensation.”

A union-appointed prosecutor and financial investigator revealed in a March report that local officers and executive board members had granted themselves $225 a week in unreceipted expenses—a cost of $156,000 annually. The expenditure was never approved by members.

“This whole thing is going to get cleaned out now,” Spaulding said, noting that new officers moved immediately to investigate the local’s books.

Years of Effort

For the new leadership, November’s election was the culmination of years of effort to turn the local around. Condy and fellow steward Al Russo had run against incumbents in 2008, falling short by 400 votes in an election riddled with irregularities.

They filed appeals, fought bylaw changes, and recruited others to present a full slate in this year’s election. Rising at 4 a.m. to campaign before work at locations all around the metropolis, slate supporters pressed a member-to-member campaign.

“Now the hard work begins,” Condy said. “We’re going to reunite the local and take on the companies we represent.”

Spaulding noted that CWA won an arbitration allowing AT&T cell phone store workers the right to have chairs and sit down at work. But the local never pursued the issue in New York. “It’s absurd,” he said.

The new leadership set many priorities during the campaign.

First and foremost is involving members in an aggressive push against Verizon to win a contract and to organize in Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, and other non-union telecom jobs.

“We want to be the tip of the arrow,” Condy said. “If we can reinvigorate the members who do the same work, they’re the best organizers.”

The new leadership says the local also needs to fight contracting out, rebuild its stewards network, institute financial controls and transparency, and host regular membership meetings that welcome discussion and debate.

“The program we’ve put forward for reforming the local is based on the principle that an educated, mobilized membership is the backbone of a strong union,” said Pam Galpern, a Rebuild supporter.

The new leaders are jumping in with both feet. They scheduled a grievance hearing for Friday—the day after Thanksgiving.

Mark Brenner contributed to this story.

Mischa Gaus was the editor of Labor Notes from 2008 to 2012.mischagaus@gmail.com