by Justin Harrison, CWA Local 13000 (personal capacity)
From Maine to Virginia, union contracts for 80,000 Verizon telephone workers expire on August 2. Verizon management will be negotiating against a backdrop of layoffs, continuing recession, accelerating deregulation of local telephone services, and a crisis of over-capacity in the telecommunications industry.
The CWA (Communication Workers of America) and IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) union leadership is also under pressure. Many rank-and-file union members feel that the CWA leadership dropped the ball by refusing to authorize a strike when 7,000 Verizon employees were laid off in December 2002. Now they have to show that they can win at the bargaining table or risk being voted out of office.
This conflict of class interests sets the stage for a fierce struggle to determine the future of the telecommunications industry.
Wall Street Calls the Shots
Telecommunications is the heavy industry of the information age. It’s capital-intensive, and its plants and equipment are expensive to build, maintain, and operate. Verizon’s networks are valued at $74 billion, and the company carries approximately $50 billion in debt.
Deregulation has resulted in huge instabilities in the industry. Speculative investments in networks resulted in Enron-style profits and bookkeeping, and massive industry over-capacity. Capacity utilization is at 35% for data networks and only 2% for long-distance.
The growth of wireless communications and high speed Internet connections have cut into the traditional land-line market. Rapid changes in technology are forcing the telephone companies to chose between entrenching themselves in their shrinking traditional markets, or reinvesting higher levels of revenue to retool their networks to provide voice, wireless voice, data, high speed Internet, and video services on a mass scale.
Verizon’s response has been to propose a massive investment in high speed video, Internet, and voice connections over the next ten years to bring them to every customer. To pay for this, Wall Street shareholders want to see that Verizon has the political will to take on its unions, control costs, and push through the rebuilding of the network as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Verizon wants to eliminate any contract language that hinders their drive to cut costs and increase productivity. It is using the crisis in telecommunications to put pressure on the unions to give concessions. Verizon argues that unless they gain the needed “flexibility” to respond to the new deregulated environment, the company will continue to lose market share to competitors and will be unable to pay decent wages and benefits.
This “flexibility” would mean contracting out work, eliminating job titles, consolidating and closing work centers, and eliminating contract language that protects Verizon employees from the effects of the merger with GTE.
Time to Stand Up and Fight
“Jointness and cooperation” will not protect our jobs. Convincing the company of its “moral imperative” to provide decent wages and benefits will not protect our jobs. Arguing to the company that unions can make the workplace more efficient and looking for ways to help increase productivity will not protect our jobs. Even if we give concessions now, Verizon will just come back for more later.
The AFL-CIO was not built by lobbyists in Washington. It is time to go back to our roots: direct industrial action backed up by a militant strike if necessary. Shut them down before they shut us down!
- Oppose further deregulation. Defend the concept of Universal Service.
- No more cuts. No more layoffs. Bring back all laid off workers.
- Establish a 30-hour work week, without loss of pay or benefits, to share work and create jobs.
- Take the big telecommunication corporations into public ownership under the democratic control and management of workers and communities. For a national plan of investment in telecommunications infrastructure to create jobs and bring the benefits of the information age to all.
- Organize rank-and-file committees to support our bargaining committees, prepare for a strike, and let our leadership know that we support militant action to win these demands.