at Verizon Communications had a lot of reasons to go out on strike against the
nation’s largest provider of local telephone and wireless services: loss of jobs
to non- union sub-contractors, forced overtime, overbearing management. And a
level of stress that can only be described by someone who handles more than 1000
service calls in an eight hour shift and is trying to cold-sell the callers
$60,000 worth of extras– like three-way calling and Caller ID.– each month.
there is one issue more than any other that gives this strike its historic
importance: the right to organize unions in the company’s fast-growing wireless
theory, American workers in the private, non- agricultural sector won the right
to organize unions in 1935, with the passage of New Deal legislation known as
the National Labor Relations Act. This right was only tenuously established, and
was later weakened by other legislation and court decisions. Nonetheless there
was enough of a legal and institutional framework to allow many workers– in key
industries such as auto, steel, transportation and communications– to organize
unions and bargain collectively. This set the stage for the broadly-shared
prosperity that the nation experienced from the end of World War II until the
framework has increasingly been undermined over the past 25 years, and so we see
the unionized workers at Verizon– formerly Bell Atlantic– fighting for a
"card-check" agreement that would allow for the organization of
presently non-union workers in the company’s growing wireless division.
"Card-check" would provide for union recognition and collective
bargaining when 55 percent of the workers sign cards authorizing the union to
company has apparently accepted this arrangement for its 8000 wireless employees
from Maine to Virginia. This could avoid the costly election process in which
employers routinely intimidate, coerce, and fire workers in order to defeat
union organizing. Although the firing of pro- union workers and many other
common employer practices are illegal, there is no effective punishment for
companies that violate the law. As a result of this severe power imbalance,
millions of workers are unable to form unions or bargain collectively, even
where they have a majority of the workplace that would prefer to do so.
experience of Verizon workers clearly shows the need for card-check. Just two
weeks ago a group of religious leaders in Massachusetts sent a letter to the
management of Verizon Wireless, expressing their concerns about the company’s
anti-union efforts. Among their concerns were employees "threatened with
disciplinary action if they discussed unionization or distributed union material
anywhere in the building." This effort to shame the company into respecting
their workers’ rights was organized by Jobs With Justice, a national network of
community-labor coalitions that counters employers’ illegal tactics by
broadening community support for union organizing.
strike has also raised the more general economic issues that have come up every
time workers have tried to organize in a new industry. Business analysts warn
that the company cannot afford a union in its wireless division because of
"competitive pressures." (Somehow these pressures don’t set any limits
on the compensation of CEOs, which soared more than 400 percent in the 1990s, to
an average of $10.6 million).
the real issue is what kind of competition will be allowed. Unions, like child
labor laws, or health and safety legislation do not prevent competition but set
some minimum standards under which it can take place. We have seen how these
standards have deteriorated over the last quarter century, as the right to
organize unions has been eroded. The median wage in the United States today is
the same as it was 27 years ago, measured in terms of what it can purchase; and
the real wages of workers in the bottom 20 percent of the distribution have
actually fallen by about 9 percent.
are many who see these changes as inherent in the "new economy," but
this isn’t true. The internet may be new, but technological transformation and a
changing mix of industries in the economy are not. What is new and different is
the failure of the majority of the labor force to share in the gains from
workers at Verizon have put their jobs on the line to try and reverse these
trends, and they deserve the public’s support for doing so.
"Card-check" should be part of our national labor law. The right to
organize should be recognized as a fundamental civil right– with serious fines
and damages imposed on employers who violate this right. Without these reforms,
there’s no reason to expect that most workers will get anything out of the
"new economy"– other than e-overworked and e-underpaid.
Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in