The culture of “no contract, no work” is almost extinct in the United States, where strikes have reached an all-time low.
But among telephone workers in the Northeast, at Verizon and AT&T, this union tradition remains strong, based on successful walkouts by the Communications Workers and Electrical Workers (IBEW) in 1983, 1986, 1989, 1998, 2000, and 2004.
In the longest of those struggles, 60,000 CWA and IBEW members struck for four months against health care cost shifting at NYNEX, the New York/New England company now known as Verizon (VZ). Only in 2003 did a regional bargaining unit—then 75,000 strong—stay on the job after contract expiration, to avoid being ensnared in Verizon’s carefully prepared plan to replace strikers.
On Saturday night, August 6, CWA and IBEW agreements will expire in that same unit, now shrunk to 45,000 by buyouts, attrition, contracting out, job elimination, technological change, and the sale of Verizon operations in four states. In this round of bargaining, workers face unacceptable concessions and a tough decision about how to resist them.
Most Aggressive Ever
CWA District 1 political director Robert Master called Verizon’s proposals “the most aggressive set of contract demands we’ve ever seen,” aimed at turning tens of thousands of secure jobs with good benefits “into lower-wage, much less secure jobs.”
Like General Electric, which just won givebacks from CWA and other unions, Verizon “isn’t under any financial stress,” according to the Wall Street Journal. The company reported $10.2 billion in profits in 2010 and its net income for the first half of this year was $6.9 billion. Over the past four years, Verizon earned nearly $20 billion for its shareholders, a record used to justify the $258 million spent on salaries, bonuses, and stock options for five executives during the same period.
Like GE, Verizon has pursued a systematic and long-term strategy of de-unionization. It has thwarted organizing at its fast-growing and hugely profitable cellular subsidiary, Verizon Wireless (VZW), while steadily eliminating unionized jobs on the traditional landline side of its business.
The company now has 135,000 nonunion employees—and its unionized workforce is down to 30 percent of the total. In the current negotiations management seems determined to close the gap between the wage and benefit standards created through 70 years of collective bargaining and those implemented unilaterally at VZW and other nonunion divisions.
Verizon’s proposed takeaways focus on what it calls “legacy” benefits. As a result of winning the NYNEX strike 22 years ago, CWA and IBEW members make no premium payments for individual or family coverage. According to VZ, medical coverage costs the firm nearly $14,000 a year per employee—“twice the average for comparable companies in the eastern U.S. whose employees make contributions toward their health care.”
Under Verizon’s proposal, this disparity would be addressed by forcing workers to pay $1,300 to $3,000 a year for family coverage.
Existing group pension coverage would be frozen and eliminated entirely for new hires, who would get 401(k) plans instead. Sick days would be limited to five per year, job security language gutted, raises tied to performance reviews, and more customer service reps put on commission pay. To add insult to injury, Verizon even wants to take away Veterans’ Day and Martin Luther King Day as paid holidays.
Workers and Verizon Both Ready for Strike?
Not surprisingly, more than 90 percent of the workers polled by CWA and IBEW in recent weeks have voted to authorize a strike. Workplace mobilization activity—a long tradition in the region—has accelerated in recent weeks, after a later-than-usual official start. Ten thousand workers rallied at Verizon headquarters in New York City last Saturday and big crowds are expected in Philadelphia and Boston this Thursday after work.
Thousands of rank-and-filers have signed up to become part of national union or locally initiated e-networks to share information about smaller-scale protests and expressions of workplace solidarity in the region. See, for example, the lively Facebook group set up by stewards in New England under the name “We Are One! Ready to Strike at Verizon 2011 (IBEW-CWA).”
Many of the stewards most “ready to strike” (and with the most strike experience) are wary of any union response this weekend that falls short of an all-out work stoppage. Yet a traditional strike could be a perilous exercise at Verizon, if it doesn’t disrupt the company’s operations sufficiently. In 1989, it took more than two months of picketing and other forms of pressure before NYNEX began feeling any noticeable pain—at a time when union members still represented a majority of the company’s workforce.
Over the past two decades, due to automation, VZ has developed far greater capacity to weather a conventional walkout by using management personnel, and, most importantly, the parallel workforce provided by its 135,000 nonunion employees and extensive network of contract call centers. Located in the United States and abroad, these centers are already diverting large amounts of bargaining unit work under “shared call” arrangements that the Verizon unions are trying to curb.
Only one of the Verizon unions has a strike fund able to provide fixed weekly benefits for thousands of strikers. CWA’s $400 million fund was created after the NYNEX strike bankrupted its previous one; it pays $200 a week initially, and then $300 if a walkout continues. The IBEW has no mechanism for providing similar assistance or even COBRA subsidies, if Verizon terminates health insurance as NYNEX did in 1989.
A Third Way
There is, however, a lower-risk, higher-impact alternative available to Verizon activists. That is the strategy of working without a contract, while using opportunities for direct action that would be both legally protected and disruptive.
In a letter sent last week to both unions, Verizon’s top negotiator opposed any contract extension. He warned that without an agreement, the unions would not be able to arbitrate grievances.
This was supposed to be a threat (and the company might also suspend automatic dues deduction when the contract expires). But the upside to this post-expiration scenario is that CWA and IBEW will no longer be bound by their contractual promise not to strike over unresolved grievances.
When CWA Local 1298 in Connecticut was faced with similar concession demands by AT&T in 2009, its 5,000 members worked without a contract for 18 months. Techs and service reps continued to mobilize on the job and in the community, union negotiators skillfully avoided bargaining to impasse, and Local 1298 won a series of NLRB cases challenging unilateral changes and disciplinary action that management tried to take against union activists.
Local negotiators were finally forced to accept some premium-sharing, based on the contract pattern already established elsewhere at AT&T. But 1298 members avoided paying several thousand dollars for their benefits while negotiations continued.
A union decision to continue working without a contract would enable members to strike selectively over unresolved grievances.
Any group of workers—in a single garage, call center, department, or larger part of the bargaining unit—would be free to engage in carefully planned grievance strikes of varying duration after the third and final step of the grievance procedure, which would remain in effect, had been exhausted. These job actions would have to be unrelated to issues unresolved at the bargaining table.
While most members continued to work and collect a full paycheck, the unions would be free to escalate their anti-concessions campaign in public, building additional support from labor, consumer, and political allies around the country.
Fighting back in this fashion requires discipline, flexibility, creativity, and a widely-shared rank-and-file understanding of why it's necessary. Staying on the job and using the right to strike over grievances throws the company a curve ball that management hasn't seen before. It minimizes the cost and risk of striking, while keeping the company guessing about what part of its operation might be affected next.
It might even give Verizon greater incentive to settle than if everyone walks out together on August 7 and an army of replacement workers, already in place, is able to maintain customer service without little or no interruption.
Steve Early, a labor journalist and former CWA representative, was involved in organizing, bargaining, contract campaigns, and strikes at Verizon and its predecessor companies from 1980 to 2007. He is the author, most recently, of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, which describes the 1989 struggle against health care cost shifting at NYNEX. He can be reached at Lsupport [at] aol [dot] com. A version of this article first appeared on the Working In These Times blog.