WHAT MAY WELL PROVE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT CONFRONTATION between organised workers and big business in the United States so far this century has entered its second month. Nearly 40,000 members of two unions, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), went on all-out, indefinite strike from 12 April in an already protracted battle over a collective bargaining agreement with the telecoms giant Verizon. The CWA and IBEW members, ranging from engineers and construction workers to sales staff in the corporation’s largely unorganised wireless shops, are concentrated in the north-east and mid-Atlantic states from New England and New York southwards to Maryland and Virginia.
Faced with mounting job insecurity, stagnant or declining real pay and the erosion of work-related benefits (including health insurance), US trade unionists have mounted more organised resistance in the past year, albeit from a very modest base and not remotely comparable in size or duration to the current CWA/IBEW strike at Verizon.
The unions’ PR campaign has effectively targeted Verizon as a prime example of shameless ‘corporate greed’, a phrase which has struck a resonant chord with a much wider public. Over the previous three years Verizon’s total profits have approached $39 billion (£26.9 billion), while Chair and CEO Lowell McAdam’s 2015 remuneration package exceeded $18.3 million. While the issues in dispute in contract negotiations that had stalled last summer are many and complex, the CWA and IBEW members are fighting hardest against increased outsourcing and the ‘offshoring’ of call centre jobs to Mexico and the Philippines. The Verizon management has also sought to impose a new regime for engineers and technicians, who would be expected to work outside their home states, away from family and friends, for up to two months.
Many strikers see the battle as about the survival of effective trade unionism - and with good reason. Verizon has spent hundreds of thousands on advertising in pursuit of scab labour, who can permanently replace strikers under current US employment law. It has pursued court injunctions to restrict picketing, which has sometimes proved effective in disrupting strike-breaking operations with loud and lively pre-dawn protests outside hotels that have been accommodating scabs. In New York the threat of solidarity action by Teamsters and unionised hotel workers led to at least three mid-town hotels cancelling Verizon bookings. The company has, however, since won an injunction effective until 9 June barring the hotel protests, while a separate court order severely restricted picketing in the vicinity of Philadelphia area hotels. In a bold move, CWA pickets actually went to Manila where they were greeted warmly by local employees, but received a very different reception from a heavily armed ‘SWAT’ team of Philippines’ police.
The Verizon dispute has gained wider media coverage than any recent strike in the US private sector and Democratic Party politicians have come under increasing pressure to openly support the strikers with the CWA organising a mass protest in front of the White House on 19 May after weeks of silence from President Obama. Insurgent presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who was actually endorsed by the CWA, addressed a street rally in his native Brooklyn at the very start of the action and has visited other picket lines, while even the arch ‘corporate Democrat’ Hillary Clinton has felt obliged to appear with striking workers. More importantly, it has garnered support from other organised workers on picket lines and protests including fire-fighters, postal carriers and teachers, and those fast-food chain employees at the fore of the ‘Fight for $15’ living wage campaign.
To some the Verizon workforce may seem relatively well-paid and privileged – in no small measure due to previous union strength – but the stakes in the current battle with the corporate Goliath are huge and defeat would cost workers in the US dearly.
In the words of one worker of Latino origin on a Boston picket line, “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.”
· You can donate in support of the Verizon strikers online at: https:// actionnetwork.org/fundraising/contribute-to-the-cwa-ibew-solidarity-fund
Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP