Struggles at Verizon

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The strike at Verizon in August, involving 45,000 workers at one of the largest companies in the US in the industrial Northeast, is the largest of its kind since the 2008 financial crash, and follows on the heels of a long development of class struggle in the U.S. For all its difficulties, the US working class is returning to the class struggle and will continue to do so as the crisis deepens. On August 7 Verizon workers across the Mid-Atlantic region struck against savage attacks on their living and working conditions, picketing outside company headquarters in from Boston to Pittsburgh and down to Richmond. Despite the blackmail of the ruling class, with even the apologists of the ruling class are again forecasting more increases in unemployment (already officially at 9%), Verizon workers’ determination to struggle has given an inspiration to their entire class, which is more and more looking for ways to give voice to its grievances and fight back against the sacrifices this rotten system continues to demand.

Verizon’s proposed contract demanded 100 different concessions including a complete pension freeze and the elimination of pensions for new hires, as well as eliminating all job security provisions, tying all pay increases to performance, and ending night, weekend, and double-time pay. In addition, the company offered only to pay a fixed amount for all medical premiums with workers paying the difference. The new contract also proposed that the company be able to force transfers anywhere in the US for any employee at any time. This was clearly a provocation on the part of the company to force the CWA and IBEW, who represent the unionized workers at Verizon mostly in the landline and FiOS divisions, to call a strike.

From the beginning of the strike the sole demand was that the company “bargain in good faith” over the proposed concessions with the unions who said they were ready to stay out as long as it took to achieve this. After wearing out the workers with isolated pickets and almost two weeks without pay and court injunctions in each state limiting pickets either at a maximum of six, or proportional to the number of replacement workers at each location, the unions announced they had reached an agreement with Verizon about how to proceed with the negotiations (although everything is still on the table at press time) and ordered a return to work under the old contract for another 30 days. As a condition of “negotiating seriously” the company was given full discretion over reinstating almost 80 workers who were suspended during the strike without the usual arbitration proceedings. The first day back workers were given $260 of strike pay for their two weeks out.

Despite the union mostly having a free hand to exhaust sabotage the struggle, presenting it as a union-busting campaign aimed at cutting the union out of negotiations like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had attempted last spring and calling on workers to focus on defending the idea of “negotiating in good faith” rather than any specific demands, many workers were on strike for different reasons. Picketers with whom Internationalism spoke when distributing our leaflet (published in the August ICConline section of our website and discussed below) said very clearly that they were on strike to prevent pension freezes, the elimination of job security provisions, the maintenance of their health care costs, and other class demands. Passing motorists honked in support of picketers and even accepted leaflets. While the perspective was not towards self-organization, many workers were very willing to discuss, and agreed with a number of our criticisms of the union’s demands and strategy. Since the strikes’ end, the union sponsored Facebook page has seen a number of comments from workers calling the deal a betrayal and even wondering why they are paying dues, and a rank-and-file forum called Rebuild 1101 online has seen debate about the role the CWA plays with one poster calling for its destruction and others recommending the road of reform.

The dispute at Verizon is in continuity with struggles that have emerged over the past year or so. In the spring of 2010, students across California and in parts of New York staged occupations and strikes in the universities against drastic hikes in tuition and fees which posed many political questions about the crisis and the future of capitalism and includes attempts by minorities to link up with the rest of the working class in California. After that, serious strikes by nurses in Philadelphia and Minneapolis, a major construction strike in Chicago, and a month-long struggle by Mott’s workers in New York confirmed the working class’ willingness to fight despite the extreme risk involved and the blackmail of the bourgeoisie.

That summer ended with a strike at Boeing, numerous teachers’ strikes, and a two-day wildcat up and down the East Coast among dockworkers. November saw GM workers in Indianapolis thrice reject a 50 percent pay cut pushed by the UAW and attempts at coordination with other GM plants to refuse the UAW’s contract, which ended in the closure of the plant. Each of these strikes was actively contained by the unions, and the working class suffered a series of defeats (often dressed up as victories), but the desire of the working class to struggle, and the refusal to accept sacrifices any longer has been growing in the US working class.

Last February in Wisconsin, a brief unofficial sick-out coordinated between students and teachers, combined with an occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol building with obvious echoes of events in Egypt and Tunisia seemed to herald a new phase in the class struggle. But after the first week, the unions (who from the beginning agreed to every economic concession so long as their role as negotiators was respected) and the Democratic Party mobilized a gigantic campaign for the defense of collective bargaining, completely sidelining the class demands of that struggle related to the living conditions of Wisconsin state employees. While efforts were made by some groups to popularize the idea of a general strike, much of this was attempted to be done through the very unions who had already ruled out any strike action, and many workers got sucked up in the defense of the unions and the subsequent recall campaign against Republican state senators in Wisconsin.

In the Verizon strike, the CWA and IBEW have both presented the Verizon strike as one against “union-busting” and with the only demand that the company “bargain in good faith,” attempting to chain the strike to the same mystifications used in Wisconsin, despite it’s very different character. At the same time, they have insisted that the concessions being demanded are simply “corporate greed” despite the very obvious fact that their union busting precedent comes from a state government pushing austerity on the public sector. The unions and the left have publicized Verizon’s new willingness to “bargain” as a major victory, despite the fact that ever concession is still on the table, as in the “victory” won by Democrats with the debt ceiling feud in Washington (see our article, “U.S. Debt Ceiling Crisis: Political Wrangling While the Global Economy Burns” in this issue).

This mystification of defending the unions as a way to defend the working class is likely to be milked by the left of capitalism for a long time, especially after the publicity of the mobilizations “in defense of collective bargaining” in Wisconsin. The descent of the bourgeois right into more and more ideologically-based irrationality has only added to the impact of these campaigns in building this stumbling block for class consciousness in the US. After a record low in strikes in 2009, and with so many ideological campaigns aimed against it since the end of the 1980s about the end of the class struggle, the narrative provided by the media of a victimized left attempting to cautiously but courageously resist the onslaught of Tea Party ideology and the dismantling of the social wage is a difficult one to move beyond. Only the deepening and multiplication of struggles can provide a situation in which these illusions give way on a massive scale to the realities and needs of the struggles the working class is forced to undertake

JJ 9/9/11