by Bill Onasch
Verizon Gets a Shock
Strikes are the most basic and common expressions of clashes between workers and employers. Cartoonists often illustrate these fights as heavyweight boxers slugging it out in the ring. But within this metaphor there are few knock-outs. Winners and losers are usually determined on points for the best punches and most adept footwork. For quite awhile, most decisions—with occasional important exceptions–have gone to the boss.
The boss class has some inherent advantages in these conflicts during “normal” times. Especially in the private sector, they own the workplace and their property rights are vigorously enforced by courts—backed by armed police, sometimes even military forces.
They have the legal right during “economic” strikes to permanently replace strikers with strike-breakers. Many of the most effective strike actions—such as mass picketing to block access to their workplace, secondary boycotts of other companies doing business with the struck employer, and “hot cargo” embargoes enforced by rail and truck workers refusing to move goods to and from strike locations—are illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act covering most private sector workers. Many public sector, agricultural and domestic service workers have no legal rights at all to collective bargaining. Major industrial corporations today have alternative sources of production to reduce a strike’s impact on their “bottom line.”
These formidable challenges have not eliminated strikes but they have succeeded in greatly reducing their numbers and length.
But some extraordinary perceived strike victories over the past few years—Temple University Hospital nurses; Chicago teachers; oil workers national agreement; Kohler—have inspired some unions to continue this tactic even as all the pundits tell them that their shrinking unions are now irrelevant and strikes are futile.
The Borg-like so-called “management” of Verizon apparently believed their own ruling class propaganda. After months of dilatory “bargaining,” they presented an outrageous “last, best and final” offer to the Communications Workers of America, and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, representing 39,000 workers in Verizon’s landline sector, in eastern states ranging from New England to Virginia.
The Verizon bosses may have expected the workers would capitulate. Their last strike had to be wound up after only two weeks—with little to show for the effort. Labor experts retained by Verizon undoubtedly counseled them that historically unions have been reluctant to call major strikes during a presidential election year. The bureaucracy that sits atop most American unions don’t want to embarrass their Democrat “friends.” In fact, their top priority over the next five months is hustling votes for the Donkeys. Verizon’s hubris essentially challenged the unions to “bring it on.”
Though not a hormonal response to a bully’s trash talk, the Verizon workers did indeed bring it on. First of all, they remembered what the company tried to ignore—the boss had been paying them because their work was needed. The landlines can’t be moved to Mexico and there aren’t enough qualified white shirts to keep up with installations, repairs, or even the call centers for long. And efforts to employ “temporary replacements” fell far short of expectations.
The striking unions demonstrated their numbers and determination from Day One with rallies of thousands in the major cities served by the landlines. And their goals of saving and expanding good jobs were well received by the working class public.
The unions also recognized the vulnerability of the Verizon “brand” in the highly competitive national wireless market. CWA, along with Jobs with Justice, and other union and community allies, conducted informational pickets at Verizon wireless retail stores across the country.
The unions didn’t exactly try to shield their Democrat friends from a boisterous strike. CWA is a strong backer of Bernie Sanders while the IBEW is for Hillary Clinton. Both candidates were obligated to make well publicized visits to the picket lines.
About half-way in to the six-week strike articles started appearing in papers such as the Wall Street Journal reporting that Verizon was taking a hard hit from the strike. To both mend some fences with unions–and to give Verizon a dignified path to ending the strike–the Obama administration intervened. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez—who has been mentioned as a possible running mate with Hillary Clinton—personally brokered mediation talks that led to the settlement.
The deal was not completely free of union concessions. Before the strike, the unions had agreed to additional “cost-sharing” of health insurance. But virtually all of the take-aways in the company’s “final offer” were dropped and some substantial gains for the workers were won. These include:
* Instead of more outsourcing of call center jobs 1300 new jobs will be added.
* Instead of a cap on pensions there will be 3 one percent increases in defined benefits.
* A modest number of both retail store workers and technicians in the wireless division are now included in the contract for the first time.
* Some contracting out in progress will be reversed leading to a 25 percent increase in union pole jobs in New York City.
* There will be 1250 dollar signing bonuses and a guarantee of at least 700 dollar annual profit-sharing.
* A 3 percent raise in wages takes effect immediately and there will be three more 2.5 percent increases over the life of the four year contract.
What do the ring-side judges think of this bout? The bosses’ media, other union officials, and socialist commentators all seem to join in a unanimous decision that the striking unions win on points.
This is an important, inspirational battle won—but the war at Verizon will continue. The company will intensify their efforts to spin-off the landline division to concentrate on the more profitable wireless sector. And they will likely bitterly resist union efforts to expand the beachhead they now have in wireless through further organizing. But the bosses will now have to deal with more seasoned and self-confident unions.
Of course, strikes are not always appropriate in every situation. But Verizon is a fresh example that well-prepared and led strikes can still be effective in beating back boss attacks and can even win gains in pay and conditions.
It is attempts by too many unions to seek “partnership” with the employer, dividing workers in to “tiers,” and granting concessions to “save jobs,” that have been proven futile.
Hats off to Verizon workers and those who stood with them in solidarity.
Once Again on Nukes
Though I am a longtime opponent of nuclear power plants my joy was restrained as I read a New York Times article about Exelon’s plans to close two nuke plants before the end of their projected useful life. Since there is no Just Transition plan available for the displaced workers, pulling the plug on the Clinton Power Station and Quad-Cities Generating Station will have a big adverse impact on these relatively small towns.
The company says the plants are no longer profitable because they can’t compete with cheap, fracked natural gas that has become the favored fuel in the power industry. Exelon’s request for a bailout by the state was rejected. It’s likely the closing announcement is a ploy to get some public money after all. The Times article notes,
“The announcement comes as the Obama administration and state and federal lawmakers are suddenly working to help support the flagging industry as part of the effort to reduce carbon emissions and stem global warming. Nuclear plants produce the country’s largest share of electricity without emitting carbon dioxide and can operate as needed. Their proponents are pursuing different ways to maintain the plants despite unresolved questions over waste disposal, safety and the potential for converting their operations to make weapons.”
An otherwise supportive reader who disagrees with my no nuke position wrote me after reading the Times article that I had posted on our companion Labor Advocate news blog,
“It’s not profitable but it’s the only carbon free source of energy that amounts to anything. Anyone who is serious about global warming must oppose the premature elimination of nuclear energy.”
Our reader’s nuclear zeal leads him to not only ignore the rather serious “unresolved questions” about nukes mentioned in the Times article; he also, like the Times, fails to acknowledge the vast amounts of zero emission hydro-electricity supplied around the country—including his home base in the Los Angeles area.
But even more important is the lack of recognition of the well kept secret of the great advances in truly clean renewable alternatives–succeeding wherever they have been seriously implemented.
On most days, Danish “wind farms” produce 140 percent of that country’s electricity needs. They share their surplus with Norway and Germany who have also made considerable advances in solar and wind. Germany is confident that they will meet their Paris treaty pledges even as they phase out all of their nuclear power.
A Guardian report from Portugal,
“Electricity consumption in the country was fully covered by solar, wind and hydro power in an extraordinary 107-hour run that lasted from 6.45am on Saturday 7 May until 5.45pm the following Wednesday….News of the zero emissions landmark comes just days after Germany announced that clean energy had powered almost all its electricity needs on Sunday 15 May, with power prices turning negative at several times in the day – effectively paying consumers to use it.”
A June 1 BBC story began,
“New solar, wind and hydropower sources were added in 2015 at the fastest rate the world has yet seen, a study says. Investments in renewables during the year were more than double the amount spent on new coal and gas-fired power plants, the Renewables Global Status Report found. For the first time, emerging economies spent more than the rich on renewable power and fuels. Over 8 million people are now working in renewable energy worldwide.”
I don’t question the motives of my pro-nuke friend. He shares the view of some eminent climate scientists who are alarmed about the lack of progress on climate measures and are reluctant to abandon any non-fossil alternatives—especially any that appear viable within the present capitalist market. I understand—but cannot accept.
The modest but rapidly growing steps toward the needed goal of 100 percent clean renewables are not chopped humus. Nukes are not the only alternative to fossil fuels; because of the many “unresolved questions” they are not even an acceptable solution.
Rather than bailing out the corporations running a dangerous as well as unprofitable industry we need to socialize all energy, transportation, and finance to prepare for a planned restructuring of an ecologically sustainable economy–instead of one wrecking our biosphere.
That’s the biggest challenge of our time—in fact, of all time—and one we can’t afford to lose.
Some of you may be thinking about now—When is he going to say something about the Jeremy Brecher and Naomi Klein articles he assigned as optional homework? I thought it best to deal with some timely issues instead. To avoid future preemption, I will put together a stand-alone “extra” with extended remarks on these two important pieces.
That’s all for this week.
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