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Verizon: Why You Are a Fool if You Don’t Want to Join a Union

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The Verizon strike is over and it is a landslide victory for the workers and their unions, the Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The four-year contracts would give workers a nearly 11 percent increase in pay over all, up from the 6.5 percent increase that Verizon had proposed before the strike, as well as modest ratification bonuses and profit-sharing.

Verizon had long argued that it needed to cut costs and increase its flexibility to manage its work force and preserve the competitiveness of its wireline business, which includes landlines, video and Internet service that run through wires.

Perhaps the most consequential issue at stake in the standoff was Verizon’s ability to outsource work. The previous contracts included a provision requiring that a certain percentage of customer calls originating in a state be answered by workers in that state — ranging from just over 50 percent for some types of calls in some states to more than 80 percent in others. Verizon sought to significantly lower those numbers.

Under the tentative new contracts, a similar percentage of calls must be answered by a unionized worker somewhere in Verizon’s wireline footprint, which runs from Virginia to Massachusetts, rather than the particular state from which the call originates.

Both sides claimed victory in the change.

“We only care that our members somewhere in the footprint are doing the work,” said Robert Master, assistant to the District 1 vice president of the Communications Workers of America. “The push to outsource call center work was rebuffed.”

Lending partial vindication to this claim was a commitment by the company to create over 1,000 unionized call center jobs over the next four years to accommodate new demand from customers. The company also agreed to reduce the number of call center closings.

The company also won the right to offer buyout incentives to employees once a year without first getting the union’s blessing, making it easier to eliminate jobs that the new rule could eventually render obsolete.

Elsewhere, the outcome appeared more one-sided. The unions managed to beat back proposed pension cuts, including a cap on the accrual of pension benefits after 30 years of service.

The company also agreed to withdraw a proposal that would have allowed it to relocate workers for up to two months anywhere in its geographic coverage area, although it had already expressed an openness to withdrawing the proposal before the strike.

Proposals to change seniority rules and to make the company’s sickness and disability policy more strict were also withdrawn, and the company agreed to change a performance review program in New York City that many workers considered abusive.

Significantly, the new contracts also cover some 65 unionized workers at Verizon Wireless stores, signaling the first time that retail wireless workers at the company have been included in a union contract, a potentially important precedent.

This is an incredible contract. The workers win nearly twice as much money as they originally asked for. They force Verizon to cave on all the benefits and the relocation drive that infuriated workers. They make Verizon back down on outsourcing jobs overseas. They force the company to create 1000 new union jobs and allow Verizon stores to become part of the bargaining unit. In return, the workers give up basically nothing. They allow individual workers to take a buy out if they want it. OK. And they open up slightly on who precisely takes a given call, but maintaining that the worker taking it is a union worker. Who cares. They also had to do some givebacks on health care, but these are the compromises that must be made sometimes. Overall, this is an outstanding contract and a gigantic win for workers.

Importantly, the settlement was mediated by Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, who, once again, has been absolutely fantastic and is my top choice to be Clinton’s Vice-President, far more than Elizabeth Warren, who is perfectly effective in her current job. It’s also important to step back here and remember what would have happened if Verizon workers hadn’t won unions in the past. If that doesn’t happen, their healthcare is far worse, most of those jobs Verizon wants to outsource are already overseas, workers are sure not getting 11 percent raises, the pension is already gone, workers are being forced to relocate if they want a job, etc. This all happened because workers joined a union and went on strike to demand dignity on the job. Clearly, the next step for CWA and IBEW is to start organizing the Verizon stores. Allowing those workers into the bargaining unit is an enormous concession by Verizon. Moreover, employees in the service industry are almost totally unrepresented by unions and breaking into that sector could have transformational effects. Organize!

Speaking of Perez’s DOL, soon to be announced National Labor Relations Board rules declaring graduate student workers is already having an effect.

Graduate student unions on a number of private campuses have for years sought recognition from their universities and federal officials, to little avail. But organizing efforts at Cornell University are moving forward, in the form of an agreement on how to proceed until and if a legal barrier to collective bargaining is reversed.

The development sets Cornell apart from most other elite privates institutions, which have maintained that teaching and research assistants are students — not employees entitled to collective bargaining rights — ahead of a major decision on the issue from the National Labor Relations Board.

“Should current federal labor law change to deem graduate students at private universities employees, we believe the terms of this agreement will assist our graduate assistants as they make their own decisions about whether or not to join the union,” Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer at Cornell, said in a statement Wednesday. “Our goal is to provide them with an open environment to make that decision that ensures dignity and respect for all parties involved.”

Cornell’s new agreement with its American Federation of Teachers- and National Education Association-affiliated graduate student union does not signal voluntary union recognition. So it’s not the kind of decisive agreement that New York University reached with its United Auto Workers-affiliated graduate student union outside of NLRB channels in 2013. Nor does Cornell express neutrality about the campaign, despite union requests that such language be included.

But the new agreement does outline a possible path to Cornell having one of the few graduate student unions among private institutions, and establishes formal communication and election procedures, voter eligibility guidelines, and a dispute resolution mechanism. It offer protections for those involved in union organizing and says that a fair and expeditious election will be held outside of NLRB channels should the board decide that graduate students at private institutions are entitled to collective bargaining — a decision that other institutions have indicated they would fight in court. Cornell would grant “immediate” recognition in the event of a majority vote.

This is huge news as well. Universities are some of the worst anti-union institutions in the country. While many public university faculty and staff have organized in states that aren’t right to leech, private universities have simply refused to even consider it. Breaking down that wall, especially for some of the most exploited people on campus–graduate students–is a major victory for justice. This only happens because of a Democratic administration committed to advancing worker rights, as the Obama administration has largely supported, especially in the second term under the Perez regime at DOL.

For Hamilton Nolan, the lesson is that strikes work and that we should all go on strike when we feel the need to do so.

Strikes work. Strikes have always worked. Strikes still work. Pro-business forces like to deride unions as socialist parasites, but strikes are, in a sense, one of the purest free market actions that workers can take: the refusal to sell labor at a price that is deemed too low. This has the effect of raising the price of labor. Though “Economics 101″ idiots like to pretend that the free market will always magically produce the perfect wage for every job, the reality is that working people—people with less money—are always at a disadvantage when it comes to asserting the leverage necessary to raise their own wages, because they can’t afford to stop working and lose a paycheck. This is the biggest hurdle that strikes have to clear. It’s hard for working people to leave work, demanding better wages and working conditions. It’s a gamble. But it tends to pay off.

As much as workers need wages, businesses need labor even more. The free market has not raised your wages in decades. The government has not raised your wages in decades. You need to raise your own wages. Organize. Then strike. It’s always good to be reminded that it works.

I’m a bit less sanguine about this. After all, there certainly have been disastrous strikes. But he’s mostly right. If workers stand up and act upon their demands, their chances of living a dignified life are much higher.

For me, the real lesson is that if you don’t support joining a union, you are a fool because you are only hurting yourself. Almost all of us should have unions. Even if you are a faculty member or public employee in the South and live in a right-to-work state, you should still have a union because it will serve as an organized voice and point of power, even if you can’t win a contract. I know, because I helped one get off the ground. Entry-level lawyers at big law firms should have unions. Workers at every private factory or establishment should have unions. Starbucks and McDonald’s workers should have unions. We should all have unions. Organizing like the Verizon workers is not a throwback to the past. It should be an entryway into the future.

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