The announced ratification this week of the sellout contract between the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and Verizon Communications has been taken as the occasion for celebrations by company management and union officials.
The ratification of the concessionary deals does not mark a show of confidence in the CWA and IBEW. Rather, it signifies that workers saw no way forward to pursue their struggle based on the bankrupt strategy of the unions.
The agreements provide a derisory 10.9 percent pay increase over four years and impose hundreds of millions of dollars in additional health care costs on the backs of workers. The seven-week strike by some 40,000 Verizon workers was systematically sabotaged and isolated by the CWA and IBEW. The deal followed decades of concessionary contracts imposed by the CWA and the IBEW that have contained major attacks on the jobs and living standards of Verizon workers and more broadly telecommunications workers nationally.
The contract settlements were announced just before the Memorial Day holiday after 10 days of secret talks with Obama’s labor secretary and a federal mediator. The CWA and IBEW abruptly called for an end to picketing and shut down the strike without providing more than sketchy highlights of the purported “agreement in principle.”
Nonetheless the unions and a host of pseudo left groups immediately claimed that workers had won an enormous victory.
Now that the contract votes have been completed, management has not been able to contain its expressions of satisfaction. In a statement following the ratification vote Verizon chief administrative officer Marc Reed declared, “We are pleased that our employees ratified these new agreements…The company’s key objectives for this round of bargaining were in the areas of health care, post retirement costs and workforce flexibility. These agreements achieve all of those objectives. The company will realize cost savings and cost avoidance through healthcare plan changes, increased healthcare contributions, Medicare Advantage plans for our retirees, maintaining limits on post-retirement healthcare costs and freezing the mortality table for lump sum pensions using the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) rate.”
Reed continued, “In addition, the agreements allow for greater flexibility in call sharing to better service customers, and give us the ability to offer special buyout incentives to associates.”
This gloating statement by a high level Verizon official exposes as lies all the talk by the CWA and IBEW of workers gaining an historic victory. It confirms the assessment of the World Socialist Web Site Verizon Strike Newsletter that the deal was a sellout, tailored to the needs of management.
The entire conduct of the strike belies the claim that workers achieved important gains. From the start the strategy of the CWA and IBEW was based on putting minimum pressure on management and imposing maximum hardship on workers.
In July 2015, CWA President Chris Shelton and other leaders of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions held a White House conference with President Obama (see photo). The meeting was to discuss the expiration of labor agreements of more than 5 million workers in 2015-16 and how to prevent a unified struggle of workers who were demanding the restoration of lost wages and benefits after the recovery of corporate profits after the 2008 crash.
The CWA and the IBEW refused to call a strike at Verizon when the contract expired the next month, in August 2015, despite the fact that workers had built up their savings in preparations for a fight and that tens of thousands of steelworkers and autoworkers also faced contract deadlines. The delay gave Verizon management time to prepare and train strikebreakers and separated the Verizon workers from powerful sections of workers in basic industry.
In mid-April, after eight months of delay, the unions called a strike without advance notice to workers, who were largely taken by surprise. The company, however, immediately put its strikebreaking plans into effect, using management personnel and scabs to maintain its operations.
The unions did nothing to counter the company’s strikebreaking. They did not seek to mobilize broader support for the strike among city workers, transit workers and other sections of telecom workers in the major metropolitan centers on the East Coast. In California and Nevada the CWA instructed 16,000 AT&T West workers to continue on the job after their contract expired in April. When a strike broke out in San Diego, the CWA quickly shut it down before it could trigger similar walkouts statewide.
The unions’ entire strategy was based on subordinating workers to the Democratic Party and the CWA’s endorsed then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to boost his electoral chances and provide the CWA with a “left” cover for its betrayal of the strike. For his part, Democratic New York Mayor Bill de Blasio penned strikers behind metal barricades while mobilizing hundreds of cops to escort strikebreakers across CWA picket lines.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration intervened in a multi-pronged attack. The National Labor Relations Board sought and obtained an injunction barring picketing of hotels housing strikebreakers. Meanwhile, US Labor Secretary Thomas Perez stepped in to convene closed-door talks in Washington, DC to shut down the strike before it became the catalyst for a broader movement of the working class.
All this time workers were being slowly starved as the union doled out strike checks of $200-$300 per week at a time that the CWA alone controlled assets of some $500 million.
The union executives were also anxious to shut down the strike because of the growing influence of the WSWS Verizon Strike Newsletter, which was followed by and gave a political strategy to thousands of strikers each day.
The outcome of this process could be nothing but a sellout, as the words of Marc Reed confirmed. In addition to huge healthcare and retirement savings, the agreements will facilitate management’s plans to consolidate and downsize its call center operations. It will also accelerate the process of ridding the company of older, better-paid workers and replacing them with lower-paid new hires that have few benefits or job protections.
Meanwhile, workers at AT&T West are still without a contract. Talks are reported to be continuing with management demanding a host of regressive changes, including a 5 percent wage increase over four years, freezing of pensions, reduced paid time off and increased “cost-sharing” on health benefits.
A Verizon worker from Pennsylvania who wished to remain anonymous said that Marc Reeds’ comments on the contract increased his anger. “Why didn’t we see a full contract before we voted? Why did the union call us back to work? The union needed to stay out until we had a written contract.
“The CWA is selling us out. I don’t agree with what happened one bit.”
Another Verizon worker from New Jersey said, “The union told us we won’t go back with concessions and we are giving up cuts in health care while the company is making record profits.
“At our local contract ratification meetings people were raising questions about working conditions—the Saturday schedule is being ramped up for example—and the union said they were too busy to deal with it. But, people are upset about their treatment. I feel we were out on strike for 50 days for nothing.
“In the 2011 strike we violated our own bylaws when the union sent us back to work without a contract.”
He said that since the end of the current strike management had increased its harassment. “The minute we came back to work they started in again with the same thing. I got a call from my manager that they are going to start reviewing production and asking, ‘Why did you take so long on the job?’”
Referring to the political impasse presented by the two corporate-controlled parties, the Verizon worker said, “We definitely need a party that is for the workers.”