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2011-08-11

Verizon Workers Strike over "Full-Scale Attack" on Wages, Benefits at Telecom Giant

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Some 45,000 workers at Verizon have entered their fifth day on strike after negotiations between Verizon and two unions representing the workers broke down when the company attempted to cut health and pension benefits for workers and make it easier to fire workers. The workers on strike are employed in Verizon’s fixed-line division covering landline phones, DSL internet, FiOS, cable TV and internet. Workers at Verizon Wireless are not unionized. Verizon says the benefit cuts are needed because its wireline business has been in decline for more than a decade as more people switch to using cell phones exclusively. But union officials have rejected Verizon’s argument. As the nation’s second-largest U.S. phone carrier, Verizon earned $6.9 billion in net income for the first six months of the year. We speak with Robert Master, spokesperson for Communications Workers of America, one of the unions representing Verizon employees, and with Pamela Galpern, a striking Verizon worker and union activist. "Verizon has basically launched a full-scale attack," says Galpern. "Essentially, the company has said, 'Despite the fact that we're hugely profitable, we are going to take advantage of the economic situation in the company right now to try to roll back the wages, the benefits, the job security of our workers.’" [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to what’s happening in the United States. If you happen to call the telecommunications company Verizon today, you may hear a message that sounds like this.

VERIZON RECORDED MESSAGE: Thanks for calling Verizon. You can now reach us at 1-800-VERIZON for all of your needs. Please be advised, due to a strike, you may experience significant delays in having your call answered. Visit us on the web at Verizon.com, or I will be glad to help you in our automated system.

AMY GOODMAN: Forty-five thousand workers at Verizon have entered their fifth day on strike in what’s been described as the nation’s largest strike in four years. The strike was called after negotiations broke down between Verizon and two unions representing the workers, Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Verizon was attempting to cut health and pension benefits for workers and make it easier for the company to fire workers. The workers on strike are employed in Verizon’s fixed-line division covering landline phones, DSL internet, FiOS cable TV and internet. Workers at Verizon Wireless are not unionized.

Verizon says the benefit cuts are needed because its wireline business has been in decline for more than a decade, as more people switch to using cell phones exclusively. But union officials have rejected Verizon’s argument. As the nation’s second-largest U.S. phone carrier, Verizon earned $6.9 billion in net income for the first six months of the year. Verizon’s outgoing CEO, Ivan Seidenberg, earned more than $18 million in total compensation in 2010, roughly $49,000 a day.

Democracy Now!’s Jaisal Noor spoke to some striking workers at a Verizon picket line in Manhattan on Wednesday.

PETER D’ESPOSITO: My name is Peter D’Esposito. I’ve been with Verizon for 32 years. We’re here today because we’re on strike against the Verizon Corporation. We’ve been negotiating a contract since June 22nd. Our contract went up Sunday at midnight. And unfortunately, all of—there’s been no movement in the contract. That’s why we’re here. Our demands are to hold on to what we worked for for the last 50 years. And what I mean by that, our medical benefits, our pensions, our job security, local issues like transfers.

KIM ARTIS: I just want everybody to know that—don’t believe everything that you hear. Verizon is a multi-billion-dollar corporation. They could afford to pay us for years to come and not feel it. This is just an example of corporate greed. And my question is, how much is enough? When is it enough?

GAIL: Well, what we’re really striking for is because we need to keep jobs in the U.S. We need to stimulate our economy. The working-class, the middle-class families are the families that are suffering. And without them, then that means that the U.S. is going to be taking a downward spiral. And what we need to realize is that this does not just affect us here at Verizon, CWA and IBEW, this affects all unions, because once one union is taken down, then they’re going to go after all the other unions.

DOMINIC RENDA: If we strike Verizon and win, it can give confidence to people throughout this country that they can also take on their bosses, whether it be a government job or whether it be in the private sector, and also win. Instead of us being brought down to where everybody else is, you know, making peanuts and having benefits you have to pay into, if benefits at all, that everybody else should learn from us, take on their employer and fight for the things that we all deserve.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the Verizon workers who are on strike. To talk more about the strike, we’re joined by two guests. Bob Master is a spokesperson for Communications Workers of America, and Pamela Galpern is a striking Verizon worker and union activist. We did invite Verizon to join us on the program, but a company spokesperson declined our invitation.

Bob Master, lay out this strike, how significant it is in the country today.

ROBERT MASTER: Well, I think that the workers that you had on, you know, the last few minutes really explained it extremely well. This really represents everything that’s gone wrong in this country today, where the richest are trying to make the working class and the middle class pay the price of, you know, whatever is happening. And the truth of the matter is, you know, this is a corporation that made $22.5 billion over the last four years, paid its top five executives a quarter of a billion dollars, and yet they want to strip workers of retirement security, health security, employment security, cut benefits for workers who get hurt on the job, cut paid sick leave. It’s just wrong. It’s not the way we should be going.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we did invite Verizon on the show; they declined our invitation. But on Verizon’s website, they write, "Profits from Verizon’s wireline business have declined dramatically due to increased consumer demand for wireless and Internet-based communication services. Today, Verizon spends $4 billion annually on employee health care, and certain representatives of CWA’s described 'middle class' workforce earn a total of $140,000 annually in total compensation and benefits. Faced with these realities, the company must make changes to its cost structure to remain competitive." Bob?

ROBERT MASTER: First of all, one thing people should know is that there are actually 70 technicians who work for Verizon Wireless who are actually also on strike. And in light of Verizon’s logic, we don’t see Verizon offering them gigantic raises because of all the profits they’re generating. So there’s quite a double standard.

The second thing is, is that they say that the wireline is declining, but when they talk to—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain wireline.

ROBERT MASTER: Wireline is the traditional network, which has also been transformed by a $20 billion national investment in the most advanced telecommunications technology in the world, the so-called FiOS product, which is high-speed internet and TV, which our members, like Pam, are installing and building, repairing and so forth. So we are helping to generate that profit. In the second quarter, Verizon told investors on Wall Street, "Our wireline margins have increased for the last five consecutive quarters." So they cry "poor" when the strike begins, but when they talk to Wall Street, they talk about how well the product is doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Pam Galpern, what do you do at Verizon?

PAMELA GALPERN: I’m a field technician in construction, so I’m what’s called a splicer.

AMY GOODMAN: And why have you decided to go out on strike?

PAMELA GALPERN: Verizon has basically launched a full-scale attack on our jobs, our living standards, our wages, our benefits. As one of the other workers said, they’ve been negotiating at the negotiating table since June 22nd. They brought forward a hundred proposals that would essentially destroy—roll back 40 years of collective bargaining and destroy the good jobs that we have. And the company did not move on any of their proposals during the six weeks of bargaining. So when the contract expired, there were still a hundred proposals on the table that would essentially destroy the good jobs that Verizon workers have fought for over many years. There was a 17-week strike in 1989 over health benefits.

And we have—essentially, the company has said, "Despite the fact that we’re hugely profitable, we are going to take advantage of the economic situation in the company right now to try to roll back the wages, the benefits, the job security of our workers." And it’s really corporate greed run rampant. The company is taking advantage of the current situation to try to put a tremendous level of sacrifice on the workers who build the network, who maintain the network, who do the work, who have done the work to make the company as profitable as it is.

AMY GOODMAN: How is the company working now, with all of you out on strike?

PAMELA GALPERN: Well, we have people picketing every location. We have people picketing everywhere that Verizon work is being done. I don’t think that they’re getting very much work done. We’re also picketing at the Verizon Wireless stores and asking people not to shop there. I think that they have—they have brought in managers from all over the country, but they don’t know how to do the job. We’re the ones who know how to do the job. We’re the ones who know how to build and maintain the network. And we’re the ones who really know how to keep things up and running. The company, the managers that they’ve brought in are being put in a situation they don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re also working in extremely unsafe conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: Boston Globe says, "Verizon saying that service lines have been sabotaged in more than a dozen instances and that some nonunion employees have been assaulted by union members. Meanwhile, the unions [reported that] members in Amherst, N.Y., were hit by a car as a replacement worker attempted to drive through the picket line."

PAMELA GALPERN: One of the executives from Verizon Wireless, before the strike started, said, "You’re going to see" — said to management, "You’re going to see picketers, and you’re going to feel like running them over." And I think a lot of the managers who were brought in heard that and took it as a mandate to basically have very little regard for the picketers. So there have been a number of incidents—and Bob can talk about it more—of picketers being hit by Verizon managers.

ROBERT MASTER: We have two dozen reports now confirmed of really aggressive, reckless driving by managers going through picket lines. A number of workers on the picket line have been hit. Several have gone to the hospital. So, there’s a lot of allegations by management about things that we’re doing; at the same time, there’s no taking of responsibility for the reckless behavior of a lot of the people that they’ve brought in to try to do the work that Pam and her brothers and sisters have been—you know, would have been doing under normal circumstances.

AMY GOODMAN: Why aren’t the workers, Bob, at Verizon Wireless unionized?

ROBERT MASTER: The company has been viciously anti-union. This group of technicians, these 70 technicians, organized—

AMY GOODMAN: Out of how many?

ROBERT MASTER: Oh, out of about 75,000 or 80,000 total at Verizon Wireless. This group of technicians actually joined the union when it was NYNEX Mobile during the 1989 strike. And we’ve been able to maintain that bargaining unit. But at Verizon Wireless, the company has exercised enormous amounts of fear and intimidation to try to keep the union out. And when we did have some organizing drives at a couple of call centers in Morristown, New Jersey, and in Rockland County, they closed them and moved them to South Carolina.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you get your last paycheck tomorrow, Pam?

PAMELA GALPERN: We get our last paycheck today.

AMY GOODMAN: Today?

PAMELA GALPERN: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what are you going to do?

PAMELA GALPERN: Well—

AMY GOODMAN: Does the union have strike fund set up?

PAMELA GALPERN: The union has a strike fund.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s CWA?

PAMELA GALPERN: CWA has a strike fund. CWA has a strike fund.

AMY GOODMAN: IBEW doesn’t?

PAMELA GALPERN: IBEW does not. And I think that it’s going to be tough for people. Today is the last paycheck. I also think that workers know that our jobs and our livelihood and our future is on the line. And they know that we might have to sacrifice right now in order to lay the groundwork for our future and to have a future, to have a future with this company. And the workers that I’ve talked to are ready to make that sacrifice. We know it’s going to be tough. Financially, it’s going to be very difficult. But I think that people know that this really is a fight for our jobs and for our future and for our families. And the fight is now.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Master, in the bigger picture, number of strikes at an all-time low in this country right now—

ROBERT MASTER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —the power of unions, and do you see other companies looking at what is happening here with this Verizon strike?

ROBERT MASTER: I do, and I think workers and community organizations and progressives around the country are looking to us to draw a line in the sand, that has significance, I think, all across the country. A lot of people are starting to talk about the Verizon strike as a potential private-sector Wisconsin. I think there—we see it with our members, and I think we see it among our allies. There’s tremendous anger at what has happened in this country, especially over the last several years since the financial crisis in 2008, in a sense that people like Ivan Seidenberg and Lowell McAdam, the top executives, have enriched themselves—you know, Seidenberg makes 300 times what the average worker makes—and yet, they turn around and say that workers can’t have good health benefits; workers can’t have pensions; workers, you know, if they get hurt on the job, aren’t going to get benefits. And people are saying, "It’s enough. We’ve had it. We have to draw the line." And so, we have a sense that people are really—really want to be part of this fight to draw the line, in the same way that the people of Wisconsin drew a line against Scott Walker.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Pam, how long are you prepared to strike?

PAMELA GALPERN: One day longer than the company. We’re prepared to be out there for as long as it takes.

AMY GOODMAN: And for people who are concerned about what is happening, who are Verizon users or not Verizon users, but not working for Verizon, what do you feel they can do?

PAMELA GALPERN: Right now we’re asking people to come out to the picket lines, to come out to the Verizon Wireless stores and support the picket lines. And there’s a petition to Lowell McAdam right now. All of it is on the CWA website, which is www.cwa-union.org. And there will be a lot of solidarity activities—Bob can talk about that a little bit—that are going to be generated over the next few weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

ROBERT MASTER: The main thing we’re focusing on is encouraging people to go to the Verizon Wireless stores. Anybody who carries a picket sign that says on it, "CWA on strike against Verizon Wireless," can picket a Verizon Wireless store anywhere in America. So that would be tremendously helpful to us. We expect a long battle. We need the help of people across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: We wish that Verizon were able to join us today. We will certainly continue to cover what is happening with the Verizon strike. Bob Master, thanks for being with us, spokesperson for Communications Workers of America, and Pamela Galpern, a striking Verizon worker.

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