Bernie Sanders to Verizon workers: I can hear you now

Two labor unions have called strikes to protest what they call Verizon's greed, which has led it to cut jobs and benefits of long-time US workers.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate and US Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to workers striking against Verizon in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Nearly 40,000 Verizon workers on the East Coast went on strike Wednesday to protest an eight-month impasse with the company over their contracts.

From Virginia to Massachusetts, the company’s landline and cable workers who are members of one of two unions – the Communications Workers of America (CWA) or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – walked off their jobs to bring attention to what they call greedy corporate practices by a profitable company cutting back pay and benefits for the people who helped build it.

CWA says that while Verizon has brought in $39 million in profits over the last three years, it has cut its US staff and moved 5,000 jobs to nations where labor is cheaper, such as Mexico and the Philippines, and has made plans to move more. Verizon also is outsourcing jobs, including installing and maintaining telephone poles, to lower-wage, non-union contractors; consolidating its call centers, which makes it harder for workers to get to work; and requiring wireline technicians to work away from their homes for up to two months at a time.

‘‘The main issues are job security and that they want to move workers miles and miles away,’’ said Isaac Collazo, a Verizon employee who has worked replacing underground cables in New York City for nearly 19 years, reported The Boston Globe.

Though this isn’t the first time tens of thousands of Verizon workers have walked off their jobs in protest – the latest strikes were in 2011, ending without a contract resolution – it is one of the nation’s largest in recent years. It comes at a time when national tensions over an eroding middle class and corporate greed have helped shape the the presidential election.

“I think what they’re fighting for is really the type of labor market that Americans believe should exist,” says Elaine Bernard, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, “a labor market where there’s some commitment by a company to its workers, to a community, and to being a good corporate citizen.”

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, who has made social inequality a central plank of his campaign platform, visited Verizon workers picketing in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Wednesday. He called on the company to negotiate a fair contract and criticized Verizon before an address to the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO’s annual convention in Philadelphia last week. 

“Verizon wants to take American jobs – call center jobs – out of this country and bring them abroad where people will be paid pennies an hour. That is unacceptable,” said Senator Sanders.

In full-page newspaper ads and on its website, Verizon cites rising healthcare costs and points out that the employees negotiating their contracts on average have wage and benefits packages worth $130,000 a year. Almost all of these employees support the company’s declining wireline business, says Verizon, which in 2015 brought in 29 percent of the company’s revenue but less than 7 percent of the operating income, suggesting that its impact on the company’s profit is low.

“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,” said Marc Reed, Verizon’s chief administrative officer, in a statement online.

“A strike in this case is not going to change the issues on the table that need to be addressed. Union leaders need to take an honest look at what Verizon is proposing,” he said.

But worker advocates such as Dr. Bernard say what the company is proposing is not enough, given that the workers negotiating contracts helped make the company successful.

“This is not a company that’s pleading, 'Gee workers, can you please tighten your belts because we’re having such a hard time, it’s a recession, or we’re buying new technology,' ” she says. “It’s just, 'Hey, we’re making a lot of money, we don’t think you deserve any of it, and goodbye.' What should workers do given that situation?”

According to the Globe, the workers negotiating contracts are installers, customer service employees, repairmen, and other service workers in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. They work for Verizon’s wireline business, which provides fixed-line phone services and FiOS Internet service.

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