Thursday, April 14, 2016

Verizon Workers Go on Strike

Wednesday at 6 a.m., 39,000 Verizon workers walked off their jobs, beginning one of the largest strikes in years.

The company is pushing to offshore more call-center jobs, outsource more line work to low-wage contractors, and force workers to accept assignments away from home for up to two months at a time—all while it's making $1.8 billion in profit a month.

Technicians and call-center employees from Massachusetts to Virginia have been workingwithout a contract since August 1. The Communications Workers (CWA) and Electrical Workers (IBEW) say they’ve offered millions of dollars in health care cost savings, which they believed was a top priority for Verizon—but the company has refused to budge on the unions’ priorities.

Meanwhile, Verizon has netted $39 billion in profit in the past three years. Its top five executives raked in $44 million in 2014, including $18 million for CEO Lowell McAdam. (Last year’s figures haven’t yet been released.)

“We work for the poster child of corporate greed,” says Josey Allgor, a 25-year employee and chief steward with CWA Local 1101 in Manhattan. “They are making tons of money off our labor. We are not working for a company that’s suffering.”

Verizon workers last struck in 2011, when 45,000 walked out. After two weeks they returned to work without a deal, finally signing a new contract a year later.

Out-of-Town Assignments a Sticking Point

Isaac Collazo worked as a cable splicer in Manhattan for 19 years. As a single father with three sons, he’s concerned about the proposed transfer policy.

“If Verizon sent me out of town for two months, I don’t know how I’d take care of [my 12-year old],” he said. “I’d probably have to quit.”

Collazo says this “impossible choice” is pushing veteran workers out—and the company is only hurting itself. “It takes years to learn these systems,” he said. “You can’t send some cut-rate contractor underground to work in Manhattan. They’d get lost. That’s why Verizon needs to do everything it can to maintain its experienced workers.”

Experienced workers are the only kind Verizon landline has, because the company hasn’t been hiring in a long time. As the wireless business grows, CEO McAdam has made no secret of his plans to starve, and ultimately to sell off, the unionized, landline side of the company.

Verizon has become “an out-of-town addict, pulling technicians from their home communities and sending them hundreds of miles away,” said Dan Hylton, a member of CWA Local 2204 who has worked for the company for 22 years.

As a result, his local area of southwest Virginia is understaffed—which means forced overtime for those left behind. The company’s current offer would “make it even worse,” Hylton said. “It makes it hard to raise families. We can’t coach kids’ sports teams, or be there to take care of our wives.”

Verizon Gets Mean

Though landlines are still profitable—have you watched a streaming video lately?—the company is letting its quality slide and its workforce dwindle. Verizon has halted the expansion of its product FiOS, a dedicated high-speed Internet, phone, and video connection to customers’ homes—despite tax breaks and rate hikes the company enjoyed in exchange for promises to build out FiOS in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Local politicians and advocacy groups have joined CWA’s “Where’s My FiOS?” campaign, pushing the company to fulfill its obligations and build it.

CWA Local 1101 members in New York City say in recent months they’ve seen the company ramp up discipline, part of its strategy to pressure veteran workers and weaken the union.

“Technicians are getting suspended, getting 30 days on the street,” said steward Ross Hamilton. “They’re making it so people don’t want to come to work.” Others say the company has stopped practicing progressive discipline, skipping lower-level steps like verbal or written warnings before issuing suspensions.

Along with the 39,000 strikers, the negotiations affect 80,000 retirees. The company is proposing to raise the price on their medical benefits at the same pace as current employees’ benefits. In recent months, crews of retirees have organized pickets and parking-lot blockades to defend their health care.

Seven Wireless Stores Join the Strike

In addition to the issues on the wireline side, Verizon Wireless has refused to negotiate improvements to wages, benefits, or working conditions for the 100 technicians who service the wireless network in the New York City area, and are members of CWA Local 1101.

Significantly, for the first time, this Verizon strike includes store workers at seven Wireless locations. They're on an unfair labor practice strike over the August firing of union activist Bianca Cunningham.

“This is my first strike—and there’s a lot more support than I expected,” said sales rep Mike Tisei, on his way from a 6 a.m. rally to a picket at the Verizon Wireless store where he works in Everett, Massachusetts.

Workers at the Everett store and at six Verizon Wireless stores in Brooklyn voted to join CWA in 2014. Yet nearly two years later, the Wireless workers are still without a first contract.

"We go in with high hopes, but it's kind of like talking to a brick wall," said sales rep Tatiana Hill, who's on the bargaining team. One of the union's top priorities is to win just-cause protection, to make workers less dependent on the whims of particular store managers.

Since Hill started five years ago at the King’s Highway store in Brooklyn, her workload has increased dramatically. “We used to have technicians in the store, and we had sales and customer service,” she said. “Now, literally, sales reps do every single thing.”

Despite their increased responsibilities, Wireless workers say their commission checks have generally gone down, while base pay raises have been insubstantial. It takes 17 years to reach the top pay rate.

Though most of her co-workers have been there longer than she has, “the majority of Brooklyn [employees] live with their parents or someone else,” said Hill. “We don’t want to live at home with our parents and families, but you can’t afford to pay rent on those kind of salaries.”

“I’d love to have a house,” said Tisei, “but if my paycheck’s going to drop, I can’t get one. Not with the inconsistencies of the checks.”

>> The article above is a condensed version of the article that appeared in Labor Notes by Dan DiMaggio.

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