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Verizon Strike Postmortems

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A couple of good reads on the incredibly successful Verizon strike. Michael McCormick notes that one of the biggest victories here is the inclusion of the retail stores in the bargaining unit, pointing the way forward for further organizing.

Perhaps the biggest step forward brought about by the victory is the fact that it’s the first contract for Verizon retail workers in Everett, MA and Brooklyn, NY. These workers finally have a union and a contract in an occupation that is known for low pay and erratic scheduling. Verizon has also fiercely resisted the unionization of employees in their wireless retail locations. It is only after years of organizing that this location was able to join the CWA in 2014. As a wall between the land-line workforce and wireless workforce at Verizon erodes, workers in both divisions can build power.

The win in the working-class city of Everett was particularly sweet. Anyone driving by a Verizon store in Everett or in the greater Boston area (where this author has lived and worked) during the strike was sure to be greeted by the same sight: workers picketing enthusiastically, while the store’s parking lot remained empty of customers, who refused to cross the picket line. After decades of blue-collar work in Everett being increasingly replaced by lower-paying service sector jobs, seeing Verizon workers assert their rights to better pay and increased job security should serve as encouragement to other workers in the service sector. The shift from manufacturing to services in the U.S. economy reverberated through the residential city like most areas in the United States, and low-paying service jobs became the norm. So it was encouraging to see workers at the Verizon store there make national news for their involvement in the strike, asserting that workers in the service sector deserve the same dignity as any other occupation.

Mike Tisei, chief steward at the Everett Verizon store, said that the new contract “means a better quality of life and meaningful economic security for our families. Today [May 30th] is a great day for my family and working families along the East Coast, and it’s only possible because we stood together.” The strike clearly has concrete implications for people beyond wage increases and the minutiae of profit-sharing schemes; they feel empowered at their workplaces and are getting a fair shot at a middle class career.

And Mary Anne Trasciatti places the strike in some historical context, noting its reclaiming of the direct action of the now distant past.

The other avenue of attack was the mobile picket. First used in 1912 by Lawrence strikers, workers in those days would encircle a factory or some other place of business and try to convince strikebreakers, verbally and sometimes physically, not to go to work.

Today, a mobile picket might traverse several miles on a highway, but the goal is the same. Just with more baroque restrictions.

As Eramo explains: “When a van leaves a facility to do our work we are by law allowed to follow that vehicle, as long as we remain fifteen feet away, with no more than five guys picketing one person.”

Verizon strikers taunted, screamed, and generally attempted to make the situation as uncomfortable as possible for scabs. Eramo says the surveillance and heckling were very effective, “and kind of intimidating.”

When tempers flared, the picket turned into a contest between dueling cameras. Scabs tried to catch strikers making threats or engaging in other prohibited behaviors (which could cost them their jobs when the strike was over), and strikers recorded their own video for proof of innocence.

Wobblies knew that a strike was more likely to endure and succeed when strikers remained engaged. Picketers in Lawrence and Paterson sung their hearts out. They marched in strike parades and processed for May Day.

Led by Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca, whose flair for the dramatic is hard to exaggerate, they held public funerals (both mock and genuine) for fallen comrades.

Such tactics effectively transformed the strike into a form of political theater. In the case of Paterson, strikers actually reenacted their struggle as a pageant in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

The CWA showed a similar penchant for performance. Pennsylvania strikers staged a funeral procession for the “corporate pig” (complete with a casket) in a Verizon retail parking lot that would have had Tresca cheering.

But the most raucous actions were reserved for hotels that put up strikebreakers — strikers harbored particular disdain for scabs who were willing to travel to take their jobs. Hundreds gathered at 5 AM to ring cowbells, blow whistles, bellow, and jeer until police arrived with special response teams.

Technically a form of third-party picketing, the tactic is illegal. It was also very popular. And it proved successful. At least one Manhattan hotel kicked out strikebreakers that were staying there.

It’s hard for me to overstate how important I think this strike was. It’s rare that private sector unionism wins anything in 2016, but for direct action tactics to lead to enormous victories is a really important precedent if the labor movement will be rebuilt. Of course, the Department of Labor’s role here is also important, which is also why one hopes that the Clinton administration will build upon Obama’s labor record in the DOL.

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