At 6:00 AM on Wednesday, April 13, nearly 40,000 Verizon workers represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) from Massachusetts to Virginia went on strike, including in Rhode Island. The striking workers work in Verizon's landline phone and internet operations.
The Verizon negotiations began in June 2015, and the workers’ contract expired on August 1.
Even after significant concessions from the unions on healthcare, Verizon is attempting to make further cutbacks, including:
- Expanding offshoring and contracting out of customer service work to Mexico, the Philippines and other locations.
- Cutting job security for all workers.
- Requiring technicians to work away from home for as long as four months, without seeing their families.
- Forcing retirees to pay high health care costs.
- Slashing benefits for workers injured on the job.
A strike of about 45,000 Verizon workers lasted two weeks in 2011. In 2000, 85,000 union workers struck the newly formed company.
On Friday, April 22nd, the unions held a rally on Greene Street in Providence outside Verizon's Rhode Island headquarters and Fiber Solutions Center attended by a boisterous, red-clad crowd of about 700 union members and supporters.
IBEW Local 2323 President and rally MC Dan Musard set the tone quickly, "We are fighting these entitled corporate hogs, who want everything for themselves. (Verizon CEO) Lowell (McAdam) makes $50,000 a day. The top five executives made over $230 million in the past five years; $1.8 billion profit a month; $39 billion in profit over the past three years, and they want us to give back?" As Bernie Sanders and others have continued to raise public consciousness about income inequality and corporate greed, these arguments seem likely to resonate not only with union members, but a growing share of the general public.
IBEW Local 2323 Business Manager Steve Murphy emphasized the unions' fighting spirit: "Verizon did not believe that we had the heart or the courage to go on strike and take on a $1.8 billion corporation. The last ten days we've traveled around the state and checked out every single picket line and had a lot of conversations with a lot of our members. I'm proud to report that our picket lines are doing phenomenally, our members are engaged, and we're ready to fight this greedy corporation."
As did several other speakers, Myles Calvey, IBEW Local 2222 business manager and chairman of T-6 Verizon New England, put this battle in a larger historical perspective: "As someone who is participating in his 5th strike as a business manager and his 8th strike as an employee, (I say) these end. When I say that, sometimes you scratch your head and say 'Why do we do it?' If we don't stop this company, this center will be gone... You listen to this nonsense about the contract being too rich, there is nothing in this present contract that we did not give up something for, or we did not work hard to get. Don't forget that."
The unions' strategic position in 2016 is complicated by the fact that the largest and fastest growing share of Verizon's income is from wireless services, which is largely non-union. The CWA has organized a handful of Verizon Wireless retail locations, including in Everett, Massachusetts and Brooklyn, New York, but the company has refused to negotiate a first contract with those workers.
The unions have countered by picketing Verizon Wireless locations, resulting in, according to Murphy, the stores having to put banners in their front windows saying, "We are open." CWA Local 1400 President Don Trementozzi claimed that sales are down 82% in Verizon Wireless centers in the region, and that "When they have to report how many units down they are, there's going to be hell to pay. We'll be back to work, they'll be begging us to go back to work."
Murphy also announced, "We're asking everybody to move from Verizon Wireless to the other union carrier, AT&T, effective today."
Trememtozzi also emphasized solidarity between the two striking unions, which represent both those who work outside on top of utility poles and those who sit in cubicles wearing headsets and walking customers through debugging their FIOS router: "I want to assure you that the CWA and the IBEW are in lockstep with each other."
Indeed, based on the strong turnout, wide range of speakers from labor and Rhode Island politics, and the evident enthusiasm and sheer volume of the crowd at the rally, workers across the state are in lockstep backing the CWA and IBEW until this fight is won.