What Happens When Private Sector Workers Strike?

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Earlier this week, almost 40,000 Verizon workers went on strike. Will it do them any good?

By Dwyer Gunn

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Hundreds of Verizon workers strike outside of the telecommunications company’s Brooklyn offices on April 13, 2016, in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Early Wednesday morning, almost 40,000 Verizon employees went on strike after months of negotiations between the telecommunications giant and unions representingseveral fields within the company failed to produce an agreement by the 6 a.m. deadline set earlier in the week. The workers are mostly employees of Verizon’s wireline business, which provides traditional landline phone and (in some states) Internet service. Customer service representatives, installers, repairmen, and other technicians will all be striking. A small number of those striking are employees of Verizon’s wireless division, so unions have promised a picketing campaign at retail stores.

The Verizon workers’ complaints read like a laundry list of everything ailing middle-class American workers today. They claim the company wants to cut retirement and health-care benefits, outsource additional customer service call-center jobs, employ more non-union (lower-paid) contractors, consolidate call centers (which would require some to commute beyond the 35-mile limit currently specified in the contract), and temporarily assign some workers to out of-town assignments for up to two months. “Despite making record profits — $39 billion in profits over the last three years — Verizon executives have been pushing to offshore jobs to the Philippines, Mexico and other locations, outsource work to low-wage contractors and transfer workers away from their families for months at a time,” the Communication Workers of America union said in a statement on the strike.

Verizon’s management, meanwhile, insists the changes are a necessary response to harsh economic realities. “Legacy constraints that may have made sense in the Ma Bell era of phone booths and Princess phones don’t make sense in today’s digital world with high-speed connectivity and dynamic customer demands,” Marc Reed, the company’s chief administrative officer, said in a statement.

The Verizon strike is a fascinating experiment in whether labor can still successfully protect middle-class workers.

Once upon a time, a strike like this would have been small potatoes. In 1959, for example, approximately 500,000 members of the United Steelworkers of America union went on strike. The strike lasted 116 days and ended only after President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Supreme Court effectively ordered that the picketingemployeesreturn to work. But as union membership, especially in the private sector, has declined dramatically, so too have massive strikes. The Verizon strike, in fact, represents the largest strike in the United States since 2011, that one also involving Verizon employees (45,000 of them). The largest strikes of 2012 and 2013, by comparison, included 26,500 and 18,800 workers, respectively.

The strategic goals of strikes have also changed significantly. For years, strikes were like a prolonged siege or a high-stakes game of chicken, with each side trying to both outlast the other side and inflict maximum economic damage in an effort to gain the upper hand in contract negotiations. Today, most strikes serve a different purpose, or at least a dual purpose — they’re a way for workers to prove a point, to signal that they mean business, and to drum up public support for their cause. Jeffrey Keefe, an expert on the telecom industry and a professor emeritus at Rutgers told the New York Times that “[t]he purposes of the strike are to build public support for the workers and to put pressure on the politicians and the regulators to put pressure on Verizon to settle this thing.”

Organizers have increasingly made use of this tactic in recent years. Several teachers’ unions have called one-day strikes, which is a favored organizing tactic of the fledgling Fight for $15 movement.

It’s not yet entirely clear if these abbreviated modern strikes actually help workers extract better terms from management, although a number of recent strikes seem to have produced productive compromises. The Verizon strike of 2011, for example, lasted two weeks — union leaders toldThe New York Times they called the strike because they felt management wasn’t taking them seriously. The strike ended when Verizon’s management agreed to restructure the bargaining to focus on a few key issues. A month after the strike ended, the unions and Verizon reached an agreement that gave workers an eight percent pay raise over four years, in exchange for workers covering more of their own health-care costs.

A 2007 United Autoworkers (UAW) strike against General Motors, meanwhile, lasted only two days — the UAW proclaimed itself satisfied with the job security concessions it won, while GM management successfully unloaded its health-care obligations on the UAW. The UPS strike of 1997, in which 185,000 members of the Teamsters union walked off the job for two weeks, was broadly acknowledged as a win for the union.

But these strikes all included a certain amount of economic pain — the UPS strike cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars, the UAW strike would have been extremely costly to GM had it continued, and even the 2011 Verizon strike ended amidst media reports that the company’s customers were increasingly frustrated with service delays due to the strike. Verizon maintains that the company is prepared for this latest labor unrest and has trained non-union workers to assume the duties of the striking workers, although some service issues seem inevitable given the magnitude of the strike.

There’s little doubt that the decline of organized labor and collective bargaining has contributed to the stagnating wages of middle-class workers. The Verizon strike is a fascinating experiment in whether labor can still successfully protect middle-class workers.

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