Working to Rule Builds Pressure from Within

At Verizon, the largest phone company in the United States, the unions chose a work-to-rule strategy to fight extreme concession demands in 2003.

Partly this was because management was itching for a strike. While the unions had been mobilizing, they weren’t nearly as prepared as the company, which had lined up non-union call centers to take over customer service and 30,000 managers and scabs to do installation and repairs. Verizon had hired extra security to monitor strikers and had reportedly reserved eight months’ worth of hotel rooms.

So staying on the job would reverse the balance of power, in a way. The company’s strike preparations were costing millions each day, but since the union could still call a strike at any moment, Verizon had to keep its expensive contingency plan in place.Meanwhile, the unions—the Communications Workers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers—could pressure the company from the inside while preparing to strike if necessary.

BY THE BOOK

A CWA fact sheet told workers how to work to rule: “Never go by memory, check your reference material” and “Never use your own judgment—ask!”

This tactic was a powerful weapon for “outside” workers, the ones who maintain the underground infrastructure and install and repair lines and equipment. These technicians had leeway to determine how best to complete a job. During regular times they often disregarded company rules in order to get a job done quickly. But during the work-to-rule campaign, they followed Department of Transportation regulations, for example, to the letter.

Technicians delayed the start of their days with a 20-minute truck safety check each morning. The check involved two technicians, one to operate the truck and another to inspect turn signals, brake lights, and hydraulic lifts.

“Some mornings at the Watertown garage, you’d see 100 bucket trucks with their lifts spinning in the air,” said Dave Reardon, business agent for IBEW Local 2222. “It drove managers crazy.”

“State and federal regulations require that we put out the proper signage—signs, cones, flags—when we work in manholes and near highways,” said Steve Carney, a field tech and a steward in CWA Local 1103. “We refused to take trucks out that did not have the right signage.

“And the company wants us to make ‘five points of contact,’ with customers. We’re supposed to call them before we come, introduce ourselves when we arrive, update them during the job, say goodbye, and then call the next day to make sure everything works.

“Sometimes, the actual problem is far from the customer’s location, but we made sure to get in the truck, drive to the customer, update them, and then drive back to the job site. And we’d do it again at the end of the day. Then we’d do the paperwork in detail, which took more time away from the job.”

Following company rules, technicians refused to use fire escapes, which forced management to find other ways to gain access to phone boxes. Nor would they use a customer’s ladder, which, for technicians without trucks, meant waiting for a ladder to be delivered. And they refused to work in dimly lit areas, which meant extra time running a light.

QUALITY WORK

Technicians tried to do every job just right. When running cables up the outside of a building, the company suggests technicians install D-rings every 18 inches. Technicians often skip this step when the wall is brick, but during the work-to-rule they went to their trucks or back to the garage, got the special hammer, and took the extra time to pound the rings in.

For slightly tricky jobs, technicians called managers and waited for them to come to the job to tell them what to do.

The downside of working to rule for the outside workers was that they had little contact with co-workers, making it difficult to build a sense of collective action. No one knew for certain what other workers were doing. It also allowed management to harass workers out of sight of co-workers and stewards.

To counter isolation, mobilization coordinators brought workers together before work, at lunch, or after work to share stories and float ideas, starting months before the contract expired.

“Each month we’d discuss a different aspect of working safely,” said Reardon. “One month, we’d explain all the details of manhole safety. The next month, we’d talk about electrical testing.”

INSIDE WORKERS

Working to rule was harder for inside workers, since every minute of their time was scheduled and supervised. They relied instead on tactics designed to keep management guessing.

Call center workers brought picket signs to work and leaned them against their desks, “just in case” they needed to walk out. They wore red on Thursdays as a show of unity.

“We kept our picket signs on our desks,” said Jim Zanfardino, a service rep. “When we went home, we took them with us. When we went to lunch we took them and practiced picketing. It drove management crazy.”

Working without a contract was stressful. “The company was cracking down,” said Carney. “There was a lot of fear and intimidation.” Verizon put its extra managers to work following members around, looking to get people in trouble.

The unions maintained support for the work-to-rule through a structure of “mobilization coordinators” that mirrored the steward structure. Coordinators were rank-and-file volunteers who took responsibility for getting 10 to 15 co-workers involved. They met regularly with each other and with a chief coordinator for each local.

Chief coordinators also met with each other and with union officials. This structure helped disseminate ideas around a local, across locals, across regions, and throughout the unions.

Combined with a public pressure campaign that included demonstrations, a frequent email newsletter that reached 18,000 workers, pressure on legislators, picketing, and newspaper ads, the two unions brought Verizon back to the table and won a “defensive victory.”

Pam Galpern is a field technician at Verizon and a CWA shop steward. This article appears in A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2, which includes an entire chapter on work-to-rule strategies.