Bob Master is co-chair of the New York State Working Families Party and political director for District One of the Communications Workers of America. He scored a major victory recently when Verizon workers won an agreement that ended a high-profile, six-and-a-half-week strike.
Nearly 40,000 workers at Verizon, the cable and telephone giant, stuck it out until the union declared victory. Workers were incensed that the company had been outsourcing jobs to low-wage contractors in the United States and abroad, demanding cuts to retirement and health care benefits, and refusing to expand fiber-optic service—a source of high-paying, blue-collar employment.
Among the gains they made are 1,300 new call-center jobs on the East Coast, first-ever contracts for Verizon wireless store employees in Brooklyn and in Everett, Massachusetts, and pay raises of nearly 11 percent over the life of the contract. The workers beat back demands from the company to cut pensions, transfer workers out of state for up to two months, and proposed cuts in disability and accident benefits.
Master sat down with me to talk about why the strike succeeded, what technology means for union jobs, and the future of labor.
Q: There’s this idea that workers in unions are opposed to technological advancement, that they’re stubbornly trying to maintain old-economy jobs. But in this strike it was the unions that called for Verizon to invest in its fiber-optic technology.
Bob Master: The company always says these wages and these benefits and these work rules are relics of the era of the princess phone. They’re antiques and we have to get rid of them. The first thing we say is, our members are building the most advanced fiber-optic Internet network in America, so we are not antiques.
Yes, we are serving, in New York State, almost three million people who are still dependent on copper lines. And those people deserve to have good phone service. Despite the fact that Verizon doesn’t want to be considered a phone company, they actually are a regulated phone company.
But also, when it comes to the wireless workers who are allegedly on the digital cutting edge, the company says, “Oh no, we can’t pay them, we can’t share our giant mega profits with them. We’re paying them the industry standard.” So, either we’re antiques or on the cutting edge, but both times the executives and the shareholders are the only winners.
We’re not Luddites at all. We’re all about building more fiber-optic service instead of buying some failed Internet brand like Yahoo for four or five billion dollars or whatever they’re going to spend on that. Build fiber-optic service in Buffalo. Create good jobs. Give folks in Buffalo the opportunity to take advantage of the best Internet service in the country.
Q: It still comes back to the question of the company’s responsibility to the workers.
Master: A perfect example—and one of the big fights—was that we had a provision of the contract that said X percent of call-center work that originates in a particular state must be handled in that state. It means that your work is going to be handled by a person making about $69,000 a year who has health insurance and maybe a pension. As opposed to shipping it to the Philippines, where someone’s making $1.75 an hour, being forced to work six days a week without receiving overtime pay, and where women are tested monthly to see whether or not they’re pregnant because they don’t want any pregnant women working in the location. These are the choices we have.
Q: Tell me about the trip to the Philippines and the connections you’re making there.
Master: We sent a delegation: Tim Dubnau, our organizing director, and three strikers. They picketed one of the call centers and then most dramatically they tried to have a meeting with Verizon management in the Philippines [and were chased down a public road by armed security].
There’s like 4,000 or 5,000 call center workers there. They’re furious. They wanted to be supportive of what we are doing. I think the lesson that we took away from it is Verizon’s greed knows no national boundaries. The truth is the limitations that we have on how this work is handled are the only things preventing these jobs from being turned into $1.75 an hour jobs. Which, by the way, Filipinos can’t live on.
Q: After quite a long strike, against a company that was really hardline the last time around, what’s the significance for the labor movement of staying out this long and coming back with a pretty good contract?
Master: By executing a pretty smart strike plan and staying on message in the media, we were able to inflict real damage on the company and protect the interests of members. In an era in which strikes have become so infrequent, this really does demonstrate that workers can still exercise their strike power in effective ways.
Q: Did it help that 2016 is an election year?
Master: I was talking to the president of the union right after the New York primary and I said, “We should remind ourselves never to call a strike again unless it’s one week before a competitive New York State primary in which a socialist is running,” because it was amazing. You had a credible candidate for President on a nationally televised debate calling out the CEO of a big corporation. That just does not happen very often.
Given the current climate, Hillary Clinton made a big point of coming to our picket line the first day of the strike, Bill Clinton went to a picket line in Buffalo. When we were in New Mexico, the Hillary campaign put out a statement supporting our action at the shareholders’ meeting. I was not surprised by the way our concerns intersected with broader concerns about corporate power, Wall Street power, but it was a pretty cool thing to have experienced.
Q: What signal does this send going forward?
Master: We kind of expected that the public would be with us. If you’ve paid any attention to the presidential campaign, you’ve seen that the candidates who are denouncing corporate greed and Wall Street ripoffs are the ones who have a lot of traction. People are really responding. It’s hard to measure if it’s more than or equal to what we saw [during the Verizon strike] in 2011, which was six weeks before Occupy. We felt a lot of that anger then, too. But this is a big company [the thirteenth-largest in America]. They’ve got a lot of money, so it’s no joke.
America is against big corporations right now and that’s a good, healthy thing for our society. Nobody goes out and says, “Oh no, Lowell [McAdam, Verizon CEO] really deserves $18 million a year.” That’s just not something you feel on the street.
Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist covering labor, economic justice, and social movements. She is the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, to be published by Nation Books in August.