As the U.S. economy teeters, most politicians and mainstream analysts have nothing to offer but the usual counter-productive agenda of reduced public spending, corporate tax cuts and weakening of government regulation of business.
Some of the only helpful initiatives are coming from an institution that much of the American public has been taught to despise: labor unions, especially aggressive ones like the Communications Workers of America.
The strike recently launched by CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers against telecom giant Verizon Communications has significance that goes far beyond the terms of their contract negotiations. It is one of the only arenas in which an effort is being made to shore up rather than erode the living standards of American workers—living standards that are supposed to be the backbone of an economy that we are constantly told is based on consumer spending. Also adding to the importance of the walkout is that it is targeting an employer that is emblematic of much that is wrong with corporate America today.
That starts with the evolution of the company. Verizon started out as Bell Atlantic, one of the regional operating companies, or Baby Bells, that resulted from the 1984 dismantling of the old AT&T monopoly. Taking apart Ma Bell was supposed to beget a new era of competition in the telephone business, but instead, some of the stronger Baby Bells focused on acquiring their rivals. Bell Atlantic took over NYNEX in 1997, and a few years later it bought the large non-Bell local phone company GTE. Seeking to downplay its origins, the combined corporation adopted the portmanteau name Verizon, a combination of “veritas,” the Latin word for truth, and “horizon.”
Verizon is now one of two firms that dominate traditional phone service in the United States. The other is the new AT&T, the name taken by the other voracious former Baby Bell, SBC Communications, in 2005. In the end, the dismantling of Ma Bell simply replaced a monopoly with a duopoly.
This concentration of ownership has carried over into the wireless realm, which in the U.S. is now largely controlled by subsidiaries of Verizon and AT&T (Verizon Wireless is a joint venture with Britain’s Vodafone, which owns 45 percent).
Verizon has compounded the negative effects of its bloated market share by fighting the extension of union rights to its wireless operation. From the end of the Second World War to its break-up, the Bell System was strongly unionized, and phone company jobs were among the most secure and best-paying blue-collar positions in the private sector. Things became more contentious after the creation of the Baby Bells—there were widespread strikes in 1989 over company attempts to curtail healthcare benefits—but workers in the core wireline business retained their union protections.
Workers at Verizon Wireless, on the other hand, have been struggling for the past decade to achieve such protections. The company has employed all the usual dirty tricks of union-busting, including surveillance, misinformation and intimidation of activists. As American Rights at Work noted in a 2007 report, Verizon also shut down call centers where organizing was taking place and moved the operations to states with anti-union “right-to-work” laws. The National Labor Relations Board found the company guilty of violating federal labor law for disciplining a worker for union organizing.
Rather than improving working conditions at Verizon Wireless, Verizon seems intent on lowering those in its wireline business. The current strike was prompted by management demands for a long list of major contract concessions concerning pensions, sick leave, healthcare and job security. Verizon also wants to tie wages more closely to individual job performance, an arrangement that is typical of non-union workplaces. CWA and IBEW are accurately charging the company with trying to undo half a century of advances in worker rights.
Verizon’s position should be seen as an assault not only on its 45,000 unionized employees but on the entire economy. If management gets its way, some people will find themselves transferring from Verizon’s payroll to the unemployment rolls, and those who remain would have less disposable income.
Its labor practices are not the only way Verizon harms the economy. As Citizens for Tax Justice points out, Verizon is among those large companies that find ways to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. For the past two years, its federal tax rate has been negative, meaning that it is getting rebates from the Treasury—totaling more than $1 billion—despite enjoying profits of more than $10 billion in each of those years.
Verizon also plays the tax avoidance game at the state and local level. For example, it has received tens of millions in subsidies in New Jersey, and last year it pressured authorities in New York to award it more than $500 million in property tax abatements and other tax breaks for a data center it was planning to build near Niagara Falls. This was on top of $96 million in electricity subsidies. The company cancelled the plan after a lawsuit was filed by a local resident.
In addition to mistreating workers and taxpayers, Verizon has apparently found time to cheat its customers. Last year, Verizon Wireless had to pay a record $25 million to settle Federal Communications Commission charges that it charged 15 million cell phone customers unauthorized fees. The company also agreed to provide $52 million in refunds.
A sign seen on a picket line reads: VERIZON IS KILLING MIDDLE CLASS AMERICA. If this strike is successful, it will send a strong message to all corporate assassins that U.S. workers will not roll over and die.