86,000 workers fight for union rights, decent job conditions |
Some 8,000 phone workers turned out for a feisty strike rally in New York August 10|
BY JACOB PERASSO
NEW YORK--"C-W-A, C-W-A, C-W-A," chanted a sea of 8,000 red-shirted strikers bearing banners and signs in a militant and spirited mobilization here outside the national headquarters of Verizon Communications August 10.
"It was beautiful. We saw that whole sea of red, then the banners. When I saw those banners come down the street, that was when I knew how strong this union was," said Tyrone Noyte, a field technician on strike.
The show of force in New York has been backed up by hundreds of picket lines at Verizon facilities across 12 states and the District of Columbia. A total of 86,000 workers walked off the job August 6 after their contract expired and negotiations between the union and the bosses were not able to resolve the dispute. There are 72,000 workers represented by the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and 14,700 by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Verizon was formed when Bell Atlantic acquired GTE Wireless Communications. It is now the largest provider of local and wireless telephone service in the United States. The company has 260,000 employees and provides wireless service in 50 states and local service in 31 states. The wireless part of the company is for the most part not unionized.
The strike has received extensive coverage in the big-business newspapers where concern has been voiced over the effect the strike will have on the rest of the telephone industry, given the issues being posed in the conflict. Among them are the intensification of work, lengthening of the workweek, and unionization of the wireless division.
Megan Matos, a striking CWA dispatcher who has worked at Verizon for nine years, said that the wireless workers "should be able to join the union if they want." She also said that one of the main sticking points in the strike right now is the company's desire for mandatory overtime, which was rejected by workers interviewed at the rally.
"The main issues are job security, health benefit copayments, working conditions, and opening up the union to the wireless phone workers," said Dexter Martin, a technician at Verizon for more than two years. "Right now in customer service, if you have to go to the bathroom you have to raise your hand or put a cup up on top of your work area and wait for permission." Workers are striking over "respect for CWA workers across America," he said.
The issue of "job security" has come up because Verizon wants the power to transfer a certain percentage of workers from one area to another, including into the unorganized wireless division, or to fire those who refuse. Workers here say the company shouldn't be able to force anyone to move.
Workers are also striking against the company's attempt to subcontract work to outside companies. Verizon would like to outsource a wide range of jobs, from installation and repair to customer service.
Verizon is continuing its campaign of violence baiting against the strike, aided by the major dailies in the city. The New York Times reported as fact that "acts of vandalism have taken thousands of phone lines out of service," without substantiating the claim. Striking union member Martin said, "There are thousands of lines down and Verizon is trying to blame it on us. Thousands of lines go down all the time, especially in the rain. The union did not tell anyone to go out and do anything like that."
"They weren't ready for the rains," he said. Rains knock out phone lines, especially in low lying flood areas.
CWA member Noyte said Verizon bosses "mood was, 'Oh there's not going to be a strike.' But we surprised them."
After the first week of the walkout the company has reportedly agreed to measures that would make it easier for workers in the wireless division to join the union. According to press reports and discussions on the picket line, Verizon agreed that if a majority of workers within the former Bell Atlantic territory sign cards to join the union the company would allow a "card check" rather than a union representation election to determine union recognition. This concession was reported on August 11, a day after the 8,000-strong rally.
As we go to press, no agreement has been reached on any of the other major issues, including subcontracting, mandatory overtime, benefit copayments, job security, and working conditions.
"We've been talking about this strike since 1998," explained Martin, when they staged a two-day strike over similar issues. "We knew we'd strike if they didn't come with what we wanted," he added.
Martin explained that although the workers didn't expect the strike to go this long, they had all saved money and began preparing for a possible showdown. He said strikers will start receiving unemployment benefits September 29, that they are receiving strike benefits, and a strike relief fund has been set up to allow strikers to pay some bills.