Genea Martin has worked for more than 19 years at Verizon. As a Brooklyn-based customer-service representative, she helps manage telephone and Internet accounts for businesses. It’s a well-paying job, but at 43 she’s increasingly anxious about the future. In recent years Verizon has shed thousands of jobs like Martin’s without replacing them.
And for the last 10 months, the telecom giant has waged war at the bargaining table with her union, the Communications Workers of America. The company is now asking for sweeping concessions on pensions and healthcare benefits, and wants more power to shift and outsource work, according to the union. “I want to be able to retire from this company, but I want to be able to have something to retire with,” Martin says. “We need a fair contract.”
Martin is one of nearly 40,000 Verizon workers from Massachusetts to Virginia who walked off their jobs Wednesday, kicking off the largest strike in the United States in nearly five years. An actual strike is a rare event in modern US labor relations—as their ranks have thinned and their opponents become more hostile, unions have been increasingly reluctant to call on members to withhold their labor. And the Verizon strike is massive by today’s standards. In 2015, major work stoppages idled only 47,000 workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The striking employees are mostly technicians and customer-service representatives like Martin. They are represented by the CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and are overwhelmingly based in the company’s wireline division, the old-school side of the telecom business that has declined with the rise of wireless technologies.
Workers and union officials say they didn’t have much of a choice but to strike. They maintain that after months of contract talks, Verizon has not eased up on its drive for concessions. Employees have been without a contract since last August, when the previous deal expired. (Workers also went on strike before reaching that agreement, in 2012.)
Employees say the reason for the conflict is simple: corporate greed.
“Greed has no boundaries with this company,” says Don Trementozzi, president of CWA Local 1400, which represents roughly 600 striking workers in Massachusetts. “They think they’re kings running kingdoms. Well, they’re not kings and they’re not running kingdoms. They provoked this strike after 10 months of bargaining, and we’re going to destroy them until they come to their senses, quite frankly.”
Union officials say they’ve already agreed to shoulder a healthy chunk of healthcare costs. But the company is pressing forward with other gut-wrenching demands: Verizon wants to freeze pension benefits at 30 years and have the power to move technicians to sites away from their home states for two months at a time. It is also seeking more authority to outsource work.