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Verizon Workers Defend the Right to Organize


Mark Weisbrot

Workers

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.

But

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

division.

In

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

mid 1970s.

That

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

represent them.

The

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.

The

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.

The

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).

But

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.

There

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

economic growth.

The

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.

Mark

Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in

Washington, DC.

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