This piece first appeared at Jacobin.
Bruce* has worked construction for Verizon for nearly thirty years and he is on strike. Walking a picket outside a Verizon Wireless store, he explains why: “I love this job. It’s outdoors, you get dirty, you get to do things. You see that island over there, I can tell you where each of the manholes are. I’ve been in every one of these buildings here,” he says, pointing to a café, then some office buildings, a travel agency, and a few restaurants. “I don’t like not working, just standing around here. But we gotta do this. I mean, I love this job but I don’t want it for my children.”
Only a few Verizon workers are picketing this Massachusetts location, standing calmly in the signature red shirts of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) holding placards emblazoned “On Strike!”
Their orderly protest stands in contrast to other East Coast Verizon picket lines. In Maryland a Verizon attorney struck a worker with his Porsche. In Westborough, Massachusetts a scab driving drunk hit a picketer, hospitalizing him. Verizon has suspended the health care of all strikers, so that hospital stay was not covered by his normal insurance.
Then there was the altercation outside the City View Inn, on the border between Queens and Brooklyn in New York City. Verizon has been using various hotels as makeshift office-garages, directly dispatching scabs to work sites from their temporary housing.
In response, picketers have been arriving at these hotels at three, four, or five o’clock in the morning, ringing bells, blowing horns and singing loud chants. The strikers have caused such disruption that some hotels refuse to house the scabs any longer.
Verizon has begun to successfully restrict this activity through court injunctions. It has also been getting help from the NYPD. At City View the NYPD once used police vans and contractor trucks to drive scabs to work.
By law police are supposed to remain neutral, which should mean not driving scabs through a picket line. Picketers got upset and a policeman driving one truck panicked, driving the vehicle into one of the striking workers before racing off.
These incidents have special meaning to Verizon workers. The CWA wears red to commemorate Gerry Horgan, who died during the 1989 strike when a Verizon manager drove into the picket line.
Meanwhile, Verizon customers suffer incompetent work by poorly trained replacement managers and scabs. Problems range from the mundane, and sometimes comic—damaged telephone poles duct-taped together, botched wiring procedures, failed phone and FiOS fixes—to the more serious: in Middletown, Pennsylvania, scabs dumped large amounts of polluted water into a roadside ravine, for which Verizon will likely be fined.
Walking the picket with Bruce, I asked him why he wouldn’t want his children working this job. He responded,
Look, if Verizon has its way, it will break the union and turn this into a twenty-dollar-per-hour job with no retirement and little or no health care . . . We’re not asking for some huge raise here we just don’t want to keep giving everything away. They want to reduce our retirement, raise our health care costs, or make this job so miserable that the well-paid people leave. We just want to keep our decent jobs but I don’t know if we’ll be able to. We are trying to stop the bleeding but I don’t know if this job has a future for my children in twenty years. I don’t know if they can live in a decent way.
That workers are simply trying to keep what they already have is a point rarely highlighted in the mainstream strike coverage. In fact, the relatively decent living standards of these unionized employees is what makes this strike so important.
The CWA is one of the few private-sector unions that has been able to win and defend reasonable wages and benefits. In an economy where real incomes for most people have remained stagnant or declined and where the top 1 percent have enjoyed around 90 percent of the Obama recovery’s gains this is significant feat. An effective union like the CWA is one of the few centers stoking resistance to increasing inequality.
The 39,000 Verizon strikers have already shown that they’re not just defending their own interests. One of their main demands has been to protect the jobs of call-center workers, who are not members of the union, and whose livelihoods are threatened by Verizon’s plan to send five thousand jobs offshore.
The CWA even sent representatives to the Philippines, to support call center workers who decided to protest in support of US strikers.
As Fortune reported, they were met with violence from private Verizon security forces and then a “SWAT team of heavily armed Philippine police officers.” This episode highlighted how the strike is challenging a major player in the global production of oppression and economic injustice.
Javier, a technician from New York who now works as a shop steward, says the problem isn’t just about work rules and contract givebacks. It’s about how the Verizon business model is designed to generate massive inequality:
It’s not fair that a CEO can make $18 million [in] salary and the average worker caps out at $86K for field techs. And take federal, state, city out of that, plus what we pay for medical and 401ks.
At Verizon, the CEO to employee pay ratio is 208:1. This isn’t far from the average CEO to employee pay ratio in the United States: 300:1, an increase of more than 1,000 percent in inflation-adjusted terms since 1978.
Yet Verizon’s top management is unsatisfied. It wants more concessions on benefits, more control over its employees, and an even more intensely exploited workforce.
That’s nothing new these days. More unusual, though, is that workers are fighting back. Their fight to keep their benefits has become inseparable from a struggle for power.
Though this is a society that prides itself on its “economic freedom,” the Verizon strike brings to the fore all the indignities, injustices, and outright oppression that saturate the American workplace.
YEARS IN THE MAKING
The strike has been brewing since last August, when the CWA’s contract with Verizon expired. Despite a $5.4 billion profit that quarter and roughly $39 billion in the past three years, Verizon refused a new contract on existing terms.
Instead it demanded concessions like higher health care costs, reduced retirement benefits, outsourcing five thousand jobs, and a right to send workers out of state.
The company’s August refusal is part of a decades-long attempt to strip down contracts and weaken the union, perhaps with the hope of breaking the union altogether and then selling off the landline portion of Verizon’s business.
“The first shot to break the union was in the post–2000 contract,” says Javier. That contract created a two-tier system in which new hires were denied protection from layoffs.
In the years since, the company has managed to win further changes in contract language, gaining more control over workers with respect to schedules, work locations, and hiring and firing.
For instance, the new contract stipulates that workers from Buffalo can be called away from their families to work in Boston. Or, in the contract that expired in August, Verizon has the right to force workers to take some other day than Saturday as an “N-day,” or non-assigned day.
And, to make matters worse, that contract says that Verizon can require up to ten hours a week of overtime in non-summer months, and fifteen hours a week in summer months. This means that Verizon can make Tuesday, rather than Saturday, the N-day, and then force a technician to work a ten-hour overtime shift that day.
“So now they have me in six days a week,” says Javier. “If I had tried to schedule a doctor appointment on Tuesday, my N-day, I have to cancel it [or] they can take disciplinary action. If you miss enough overtime assignments then they can suspend you.”
“The company claims it needs to be able to do all this for workplace flexibility, but it’s just a play by the company to make it difficult for the workers so they leave,” says Javier. That strategy has worked; five thousand union workers have left Verizon since the last time the CWA called a strike in 2011.
Verizon’s new demand is to be able to send workers out of state, away from their families, for up to two months at a time. For instance, Verizon has recently announced a plan to build FiOS in Boston.
Normally, it would have to hire Boston-area technicians, but with Verizon’s new plan they could send technicians from Virginia or New Jersey to Boston, under pain of suspension or firing, to do the engineering, construction, and wiring.
As the out-of-state work issue illustrates, this strike isn’t just about wages and benefits, it is about power and domination. Verizon wants workers that move around like frictionless little atoms, ready to mold themselves to the needs of the company.
Verizon workers, however, insist they are human beings. Resisting schedule manipulation is just the start.
MANAGERS FROM OUTSIDE
Workers are also fighting something Verizon calls theQuality Assurance Program (QAR). The company says it was introduced to keep better time records. But its greater use lies in helping bosses micromanage workers’ time.
Gavin*, who has worked installation and maintenance for more than sixteen years, has experienced the worst effects of QAR.
Recently, after finishing an eight-hour shift, he was commended by a manager for his conscientious work. Yet the very next day he was called in for one of these QAR disciplinary proceedings. Subjected to a barrage of questions, without even knowing what the infraction was, he was then suspended for six weeks without pay.
The infraction turned out to be an error on management’s side. The union fought for Gavin and he was eventually reinstated, though he still lost a week’s pay and retained a mark on his record. Gavin emailed me about his experience:
My union reps fought for me and I was given back everything, but one week of pay, and a sullied record at Verizon . . . When they were asked to produce the proof there was none to be produced, yet I was standing with texts, phone records, and customer testimony as my defense to no avail. Do we operate in a democratic society, or is Verizon and its current regime of rulers somehow an exception to what this country stands for?
Based on my discussions with other Verizon workers, Gavin’s experience is typical. Arbitrary procedures, rulings, and minute control over work are standard fare at Verizon.
For instance, Gavin is allowed a half-hour lunch break, including time traveled from and back to the work site. Anything more can result in serious discipline; a thirty-five-minute lunch can cost a worker six weeks of pay.
“According to Verizon, we are not allowed to take a bathroom break without management approval,” says Javier. “That is an outright disgrace to human dignity.” His manager even demands that workers call him if they wanted to pee:
Unfortunately, when we call him, it goes to voicemail then we can’t leave a message because his box is full. We complained, so now he lets us text him. But a text is not complete, according to him, until he responds. So what am I supposed to wait? . . . If there is no management approval, then if I go then I’m “off the job.” That is a loophole they exploit to suspend us.
In Javier’s view, which I heard many Verizon workers repeat, lower-level managers appear to be under pressure to suspend a certain number of workers or run a given amount of disciplinary proceedings. “The QAR is directly targeted at the lowest 6 percent of the productive technicians,” says Javier, “and we all know there will always be a bottom 6 percent.”
On top of that, the composition of lower-level management has changed. “In the past managers were folks who actually came from the field, and therefore understood what they were managing and could more efficiently address any actual on-the-job concerns,” says Gavin. Now, most lower-level managers are not former engineers or technicians but individuals hired to implement this new disciplinary regime.
“Some of these new managers come straight out of the military, from a tour of service,” says Bruce, shaking his head. “And they’re afraid for their jobs.” Many of these lower-level managers are being forced, under threat of being fired, to scab.
The change in managerial culture, the creation of new disciplinary proceedings, the intensification of work rules, and the increasing enforcement of minor infractions is a regular feature of contemporary American labor relations.
As labor reporter Steven Greenhouse has described, American companies large and small have turned lower-level management into discipline machines, “setting ever-tougher goals for its managers, using sophisticated computer systems to monitor their every move, ousting those who fall short of expectations, allowing managers to use foul language and savage criticism to bully subordinates.”
They are often given impossible quotas or benchmarks, which can be achieved only by making inhuman demands on workers, doing unpaid work themselves, or outright wage theft/time-stealing.
Managers unwilling to do any of those things just get fired and replaced with those mean or desperate enough to do it. Verizon fits right into this pattern, except that its workers have a union with the collective power to push back, as it did in Gavin’s case.
“I think the company has one end in mind to all of this . . . to break the union,” says Javier. “And if they couldn’t break the union per se and have to offer a contract, even if they do it to get smaller and smaller contracts and try to push people out of the company. If they make the conditions so deplorable people will leave.”
Every Verizon worker I talked to agreed, including many who were worried enough that they were unwilling to be quoted even under a pseudonym.
LABOR AND THE LAW
The most successful tactic during this strike has been holding pickets outside hotels housing scabs. That’s why Verizon has sought injunctions against this, and other practices, and in a couple states has had its way.
On May 9, Verizon won a temporary injunction against these pickets in New York City and this injunction was then extended until June 9.
In Philadelphia, Verizon won an injunction permitting no more than six picketers and forcing them to stay at least fifteen yards from Verizon’s retail stores and authorized retailers.
These injunctions occur against the background of already extraordinarily punitive labor law. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act says that workers have a right to strike, but this has been interpreted in the narrowest possible terms, and limited by subsequent legislation.
The subsequent 1947 Taft-Hartley Act banned sympathy strikes, political strikes, and secondary strikes and boycotts, which placed huge legal obstacles to the solidaristic worker action that used to be a regular feature of American labor politics.
Judges have taken what remains of the right to strike and whittled it down even further. One important Supreme Court precedent says that workers may not be fired for going on strike, but in most cases employers are free to hire permanent replacement workers.
You can’t be fired but you can be permanently replaced. Or the employer can threaten to move the entire workplace. You can’t fire any specific individual who threatens to strike, but you can in effect fire them all.
This legal situation has led one commentator to observe, “The ‘right to strike’ upon risk of permanent job loss is a ‘right’ the nature of which is appreciated only by lawyers.” Primarily corporate attorneys and those specializing in union-busting, one suspects.
Striking workers face any number of further restraints, depending on state law and the mood of a judge—all of which puts potential or existing strikers in a bind. Either they exercise their right to strike within the bounds of the law, with little hope of winning and high likelihood of being replaced, or they confront the law itself.
In this environment, only relatively skilled workers, who are hard to replace en masse, can go on strike with some hope of stopping or slowing production. This means workers in sectors like fast food, retail, and agriculture—with the worst pay, fewest benefits, and least amount of workplace control—have the least freedom to defend their interests legally.
That is a problem for all workers who want to exercise their power collectively. It is no surprise that an AFL-CIO president once claimed he would prefer “the law of the jungle” to American labor law. And it is hard to imagine any serious revival of a robust class politics without potentially massive acts of civil disobedience.
The Verizon strike is in its fifth week and whatever happens it is not just a strike about Verizon. It is about organized workers facing a punitive company, repressive labor law, and a dwindling membership trying to preserve their power and resist further attacks on their benefits, dignity, and time and personal freedom.
As Javier says, if they are successful, they can be a standard for others to rally around:
If we can set a bar for everyone else . . . then other people, who aren’t in a union, can aspire to raise themselves up to our level. Right now the company wants to push everyone down to the poverty level. If we are able to go on strike and have the right to strike then we can fight not just for ourselves but for other people. We can be something for everyone.
In an unequal, capitalist society like ours, there is no substitute for militant workers, organized on the widest possible basis, who can use the best weapon they have: the refusal to work.
It’s easy to imagine radical alternatives to the status quo. It is far more difficult to generate the social power and political muscle to make any of those visions a reality. But Verizon workers are helping show the way.
*Names have been changed.
This blog originally appear at inthesetimes.com on May 20, 2016. Reprinted with Permission
Alex Gourevitch is an assistant professor of political science at Brown University and the author of From Slavery To the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century.