Tens of thousands of fed-up Verizon employees who have been working without a contract since last August walked off the job Wednesday, after a year of acrimonious negotiations with the telecom giant failed to produce a new labor pact.
The work stoppage, which is being organized by unions representing nearly 40,000 Verizon wireline installers, technicians, and customer service representatives from Massachusetts to Virginia, could become the largest US labor strike since 45,000 Verizon employees walked off the job in 2011.
The Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers outlined a variety of grievances this week, charging that Verizon, which raked in net income of nearly $18 billion in 2015, wants to freeze pensions, slash benefits, and outsource jobs to Mexico and the Philippines.
"Our families and our customers deserve more from Verizon," Isaac Collazo, a Brooklyn-based technician and CWA member who has worked at Verizon for 19 years, said in a statement. "Through our hard work, Verizon is making record profits while our families are left with threats to our jobs and our customers aren't getting the service they need."
The two sides have been battling over what the unions call Verizon's unacceptable demands, including shuttering US call centers and transferring workers away from their families for months at a time. The unions also say that the company has refused to negotiate improvements to wages, benefits and working conditions for a group of Verizon Wireless workers who joined CWA in 2014.
Calling Verizon's greed "disgusting," CWA issued a statement pointing out that CEO Lowell McAdam made $18 million last year, "more than 200 times the compensation of the average Verizon employee." Verizon's top five executives made $233 million over the last five years, the union said, adding that the telecom giant has paid out $13.5 billion in dividends and stock buybacks to company shareholders.
"Striking is a hardship for our families, but we need to remind Verizon executives that the people who build their profits are a critical reason for the company's success."
The Verizon strike comes as labor groups around the country are trying to re-assert their influence after decades of declining union membership. CWA, in particular, has stepped up its political activism and organizing, in part through its high-profile endorsement of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has made labor rights a key principle of his presidential campaign.
Sanders, who has called Verizon's behavior "unacceptable," was joined last month by 19 other US senators in writing a letter urging McAdam "to act as a responsible corporate citizen and negotiate a fair contract with the employees who make your company's success possible."
CWA called on its members, who have been working without a contract since last August, to "dig in, be prepared, join picket lines, picket Verizon Wireless Stores, and demonstrate the commitment and solidarity that have been the values we've lived by throughout CWA's proud history."
Verizon has in recent years been de-emphasizing its wireline business, which employs most of the striking workers, in favor of its more profitable wireless phone service. Last fall, 14 East Coast mayors, including Bill de Blasio of New York and Ras Baraka of Newark, blasted the company's failure to "meet contractual or legislative deadlines" to make its FiOS fiber optic service available to many of their residents, and urged management to resolve its labor disputes.
In a statement, Verizon criticized the unions for refusing to negotiate in good faith, and insisted that the telecom giant is prepared for tens of thousands of workers to walk off the job.
"We've tried to work with union leaders to reach a deal," said Marc Reed, Verizon's chief administrative officer. "Verizon has been moving the bargaining process forward, but now union leaders would rather make strike threats than constructively engage at the bargaining table."
Verizon, which is offering a 6.5 percent wage increase, insists it wants to preserve good jobs while also making contract changes to address the rising cost of healthcare. The company says that the striking employees have compensation packages that average more than $130,000 per year, and account for 29 percent of Verizon's revenue but less than 7 percent of its operating income.
Verizon says that with the annual cost of family health coverage reaching $24,000 for active employees and $39,000 for retirees, the company is seeking "common sense solutions" to manage rising healthcare costs. Verizon also says it wants "greater flexibility to manage and utilize its workforce to gain operating efficiencies and better customer experiences."
The strike affects Verizon employees and customers in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and Washington, DC. "Striking is a hardship for our families, but we need to remind Verizon executives that the people who build their profits are a critical reason for the company's success," said Collazo, the veteran Brooklyn-based Verizon technician and CWA member.
Bob Mudge, president of Verizon's wireline network operations, said in a statement that the telecom giant is prepared for a walkout because it has "trained thousands of non-union Verizon employees to carry out virtually every job function handled by our represented workforce—from making repairs on poles to responding to inquiries in our call centers."
In 2011, some 45,000 Verizon workers walked off the job for two weeks after contract negotiations broke down, causing widespread customer complaints about installation and repair delays. The two sides eventually returned to the table and were able to hammer out an agreement that included an 8 percent pay raise for workers.