Photo courtesy of Gothamist
On April 13, nearly 40,000 Verizon workers walked off the job, aggrieved that the company wants to use more nonunion contract workers and overseas call centers.
“How can they want to move jobs out of the country?” asked Debra Mauriello, a customer service rep picketing near her office in Valhalla, New York. “There are people starving in the U.S. Jobs are limited as it is.”
The strike, which is ongoing, was launched on the eve of the New York presidential primary. The timing does not seem coincidental, as both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have been railing against the outsourcing of U.S. jobs. Sanders even stopped by to rally striking workers in Brooklyn
The striking employees, who are on the wireline (FiOS Internet, TV, and landline) side of the business, are based exclusively on the East Coast.
In an article for NBC News, Martha C. White noted that the unions—Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers—have been working without a contract since last August. She suggested that they chose to strike now because political rhetoric had riled up the electorate to side with workers. She called it a “fight for the future of labor,” especially in the face of technological advances.
The strike has also brought to the fore the growing problem of monopolization.
Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law professor now running for Congress in upstate New York, is an expert on antitrust issues and an outspoken proponent of universal broadband. She told the Huffington Post (which is owned by Verizon) that the strike highlights how corporations with too much power in a single industry are bad for both workers and customers.
“Basically the company can say to workers as it says to its customers: take it or leave it,” she said. “It doesn’t have to provide good service, it doesn’t have to take care of its workers.”
Teachout, the author of a book about political corruption, added that "concentration of economic power turns into concentration of political power.”
At a town hall in April, Teachout noted that twenty-five years ago the U.S. had more than 100 defense contractors. Now it has five. “It’s not that there’s less money,” she said. “It’s that it’s getting consolidated.” Monopolization is affecting every industry, she said, and singled out “seeds, banking, and pharma” in addition to defense.
In a recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman also made the connection between the Verizon strike and monopolization. He stressed that monopolization leads to increased profits and lower wages, noting that the top four companies in a slew of American industries have grown over time, while net job growth has not budged since the 1990s.
So while the Verizon strike is clearly about the future of labor, it also reflects the impact of corporate consolidation on jobs, the shrinking of the middle class, and how economic decisions are made in Washington.
In the twentieth century, the American economy was the strongest when union membership was the highest. As union membership has declined, so have middle class wages. Since 1983, union membership decreased from 20 percent of American workers to 11 percent currently—with fewer than 7 percent of private-sector workers now unionized. Over that same period, the rich have gotten much richer and income inequality has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression.
But the striking Verizon employees in Valhalla, New York, seek economic stability, not wealth. Kevin Hayes, of Brewster, cited Verizon’s decisions to cut benefits, fire employees without regard to seniority, and relocate technicians for months at a time.
“We’re not out here because we want a raise,” Hayes said, as nearby picketers nodded. “We came in under the promise of certain health-care, retirement, and salary packages. If we knew they could be cut, we would have considered other options.”
Verizon did not respond to calls or texts seeking comment.
Jake Whitney is a journalist based in New York. In addition to The Progressive, his work has appeared in The New Republic, The Daily Beast, San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications.