Since writing, the unions and bosses at Verizon have decided to re-open negotiations and the strike has ended (shortly before the 2 week period after which workers were entitled to strike pay!) This article was distributed amongst the strikers on their picket lines by our comrades in the US, who had many discussions with them.
For the first time in 11 years, 45,000 Verizon workers across the Mid-Atlantic region have returned to the class struggle, courageously refusing to submit to the bosses’ logic of making the working class pay for the deepening economic crisis of capitalism! Our exploiters say we should sacrifice to help the economy get going again, or to support the profitability of a company in order to safeguard jobs. But the latest draconian assault on pension benefits is proof that the more workers give in, the longer they delay their response to the boss’s attacks, the more emboldened and brutal the next round of attacks will be. This is evident in Verizon’s inhuman characterization of its wireline workers as ‘obsolete’. When the sacrifices already made are no longer enough to satisfy the boss’s insatiable hunger for profit, they simply dispose of us, as if we were mere commodities. Contrary to what the ruling class says, the sacrifices they want us to make do not pave the way for a better future. The truth is, the only future the capitalist system has to offer is one of vanishing pensions, no benefits, speed-ups, frozen wages, increasing unemployment and savage attacks on our living conditions as workers.
When the CWA and the IBEW put forth that Verizon should not ask for the current deep concessions to workers’ health care, pensions, sick days, disability leave, etc., because of the company’s estimated $6 billion profit for the rest of the year (it has made $9.6 in the first half), they actually hide the seriousness of the capitalist economic crisis. In doing so, they consciously weaken the workers’ ability to confront the attacks with a clear idea of the perspectives ahead. The seriousness of the economic crisis and the reality of competition, which imposes that every company will ask, time and again, for more and deeper concessions today as well as tomorrow. As companies lose their competitive edge to the ravages of the capitalist economic crisis, their operations lose profitability. To keep pace with the competition, companies have had to modernize their technology or go out of business. Verizon, like all other capitalist companies, has done so with the sacrifices imposed on its workers, with pension deals and health care benefits negotiated most notoriously at the time of the 2000 strike. As an illustration of how, in this period of capitalist decadence aggravated by the current economic crisis, the unions work hand in glove with the bosses to broker a deal in favor of the latter and demoralize the workers the better to weaken their combativeness in future struggles, we need to remember what the CWA and the IBEW did in 2000. Then, when 86,000 Verizon workers struck over benefits and wages, the CWA and IBEW spilt the membership in two first, then negotiated two separate contracts, each giving in to the demands of management with the result that even the Financial Times hailed the new contract as helping Verizon gain a competitive edge on the developing wireless market. One of the most notorious stipulations of that contract allowed Verizon to transfer 800 of its wireline workers a year to its wireless division, where workers already worked without a pension package. The contract also did nothing to address the workers’ grievances regarding forced overtime. The unions play the role of a broker in negotiations that always favor the bosses, and it traps our struggles by keeping us to the strict guidelines laid down in the trade union rulebook: no mass meetings, no secondary pickets or attempts to spread the strike. In fact, the present strike vote was called by the CWA not because of any specific part of the proposed attacks, but only because the company wasn’t “bargaining in good faith.”
The CWA and the IBEW point at the money Verizon and its CEO’s make as the reason why workers should not give anything back, they further push the bosses’ idea that a strike has legitimacy only when a company is not bankrupt and that workers cannot fight back when a company is not doing well—they must “go down with the ship” so to speak. Workers in the public sector are told the same thing by both the government and the unions: that sacrifices are unavoidable because states are bankrupt. From the perspective of the working class, however, it is clear that the bosses’ interests, driven by profit, stand in open conflict with the workers’ interests, driven by the necessity to safeguard our means of livelihood.
So, if the unions are the bosses’ foils, what are the perspectives for the present strike? Verizon workers should be under no illusion that this struggle will win by simply following the union’s lead. But what workers can do is use it as a means to come together and discuss how to make the movement more widespread and effective. Clearly, other workers are sympathetic to the Verizon strike, but to really win, workers need to spread the strike and really make it a movement for the whole working class. A basic example of this is the picket line. Historically, when workers were on strike they would encircle the struck workplaces to physically prevent machines and replacement workers from going in or out, and to appeal to the workers hired to replace them not to take their jobs. Today, the picket line is behind a fence from which workers are told to simply shout at scabs. Workers need to discuss ways how they can use the picket line creatively and make it effective—to encourage solidarity push Verizon back from its draconian cuts. Union workers should try and convince non-union workers of the necessity of the strike. They should stop them and talk with them explaining the reasons for the strike, spreading the idea that it is only through the widest possible unity among workers that the attacks by the bosses can be resisted. Flying pickets could be created to go and talk with the workers in the Verizon wireless stores (who already work with very poor benefits and almost no pension) during their lunch breaks, to discuss what their grievances are, what we can do to integrate them in the struggle, and to point out that the present strike is also for the protection of their own interests, which could inspire more working people to stand up for themselves across the country and across the world. In this way, even if the bosses win this particular strike (which they are likely to if workers follow the union’s lead and give them complete control) the workers would have gained experience and self-confidence, necessary ingredients to wage the future struggles which the capitalist crisis will inevitably force us to wage.
In the context of the deepest economic crisis of capitalism, with the risk of losing their job or enduring even more oppressive working conditions, the struggle of the Verizon workers is a beacon of hope for the entire working class. But workers in all sectors and in every country are hurting because of attacks on living and working conditions. Cuts in healthcare and increased, lay- offs, wage freezes, endemic unemployment, speed-ups, and increased exploitation at work have been going on for a long time already, and more and more, the working class is looking for ways to resist. Workers, students, and the unemployed across the US and the whole world are looking for ways to give voice to their grievances. In this sense, the current strike by Verizon workers is in continuity with the California student strikes and demos of only one year ago, the Philadelphia and Minneapolis hospital nurses strike, the Mott’s workers strike upstate, the East Coast dock workers strike last fall, and the Madison, Wisconsin public sector workers sick-outs and demonstrations this spring, and also internationally with the tide of revolt that has swept across North Africa and the Middle East, which has reverberated now across Greece and Spain. But it is only when workers are able to take the struggle into their own hands, and out of the hands of the unions, that their resistance becomes really effective.
Internationalism, August 2011.