Occupy Verizon, Occupy the Labor Movement
Trading in standard picket chants for “We are the 99 percent!” several hundred workers and activists marched from Manhattan Verizon headquarters down to Zuccotti Park Friday evening. Many wore “Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Verizon! Occupy Everything!” signs over red union t-shirts. Marchers circled the park before the march continued on to a nearby Verizon store, where the crowd chanted “Shame” at Verizon and “Thank you” to Occupy Wall Street. But many of the union marchers had lingered at Zuccotti Park, eager to witness the occupation whose energy and iconography is transforming their contract fight.
It’s a difficult fight. Like America’s, Verizon’s unionization rate has plummeted in recent decades. Forty-five thousand union members at Verizon, no longer a majority at their company, are negotiating with a company set on imposing conditions more like those of their non-union co-workers: higher healthcare costs, job insecurity and raises left to management discretion. Workers (most from the Communications Workers of America) struck for two weeks when their contracts expired in August, then returned to work with an agreement to “restructure bargaining.” Since then, Verizon has relented on some insulting but comparatively low-cost concessions, like eliminating the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. But overall it maintains “pretty much the same position they had when we went on strike,” according to Bob Master, who coordinates CWA actions against Verizon in New York and seven other states. Friday’s march was the latest of a series of such actions aimed at getting Verizon to back down on its big takeaways.
Aaron Black, one of the OWS point persons for the march, expressed disappointment at the comparatively modest number of OWS participants (some likely opted for the anti–“Stop and Frisk” march or the concert with Pete Seeger on the same day). But though OWS turned out perhaps a fifth of the marchers, its presence suffused the whole action. Whereas in August CWA was talking about defending the middle class and the American Dream, now the union’s message has sharpened: Verizon workers are the 99 percent, and Verizon is the 1 percent. Master says Occupy Wall Street “gave us a much more powerful hook,” and that its support is “critical to the outcome of this fight.” Verizon workers at the march were thrilled by the Occupy movement’s growth and proud to have its support. “Their movement is wonderful,” said Verizon technician Barbara Peterson, “it’s groundbreaking, it’s great, [and] to join us, that’s even better…. I’m proud.”
That collaboration is rooted in pre-existing relationships, shared goals and reciprocal support. The membership of OWS’s Labor Committee includes staff on leave from the labor-backed New York Working Families Party, which Master co-chairs. In the second week of their occupation, OWS activists began joining CWA pickets. “We made some union members cry” just by showing up, says Nelini Stamp of OWS’s labor committee. “CWA was surprised…and then they started to say, ‘Let’s help you out.’ ” CWA’s international executive board formally endorsed OWS in a unanimous vote the day before the labor-backed march to Occupy Wall Street on October 5, which included thousands of CWA participants. When activists prepared to defy Mayor Bloomberg’s order to vacate the park for cleaning October 7, dozens of CWA members showed up early in the morning to support them, some of whom were prepared to go to jail with them. “It was just incredible to see regular working people, who may not necessarily be all that political, coming out and supporting us,” says OWS activist Alex Claver. “It was beautiful.” Since then, OWS members have been distributing CWA leaflets outside of Verizon stores.
For the OWS movement, which has gained momentum from confrontations with police and politicians, actions like Friday’s offer the chance to confront a different face of power. “All this hay is being made of the fact that OWS doesn’t have a specific manifesto,” says OWS Labor Committee member Jesse Myerson, “but it certainly has projects,” including the Verizon fight. Though some OWS activists “come out of a tradition that is very hostile” to working with unions, he says “mostly I find that people are grateful to unions.” Linking up with labor has also broadened the number, and diversity, of OWS participants. “OWS is a lot of young white students,” says Claver, “and the labor movement is older people of color and more of a mixed crowd, so it’s good to see us coming together.”
“We have radicals pulling unions into a more radical fight than they’re ordinarily involved in,” says OWS activist Sam Connet, “and at the same time, giving all these activists and young people…a chance to get involved in real concrete day-to-day struggle over a fair contract…to know, who are the workers we are talking about when we talk about Wall Street and the financial system treating workers unfairly?”
Activists Friday expressed hope that OWS’s continuing example will urge unions to a greater embrace of movement tactics—popular appeals, naming the enemy, and getting and staying in the streets. In a sign of the times, when a tech magazine interviewed a Verizon management spokesperson prior to the march, rather than condemning CWA for associating with OWS radicals, he urged the OWS movement not be led astray by the union.
Without popular support, says CWA President Larry Cohen, the Verizon contract fight is “not going to work out.” More broadly, Cohen says, “Our thinking needs to shake out, and a traditional approach to US politics is not going to produce the kind of change we need.” There will be ample opportunities for CWA and OWS to keep working together. In the next several weeks, Master expects CWA will “most likely prepare for another strike.”
“The power of the idea of ‘We are the 99 percent’ is tremendous,” says Master, “and no one was talking in those terms when we went on strike.”