There’s a shortage of Wite-Out in the conservative business camps lately, the’ve begun to quietly paint over a whole section of history, because frankly it doesn’t make any sense to them. During the late 1950’s and early 60’s Union participation was at it’s highest, almost 30% of jobs were unionized. Unfortunately this was also a time of unprecedented industrial and economic power for the United States. That’s awkward.
The unionization of the American workforce didn’t come about because the working man’s or working women’s lives were hunky dory. Both public and private unions grew and flourished because workers faced the same problems; oppressive work and compensation systems that favored profit over safety and secure employment.
Giving employees the power to negotiate their salaries, benefits and working conditions was a tough pill for employers to swallow. They fought hard to prevent this loss of power and spent billions throughout the years trying to defeat unionization. Although, many union members and organizers were hurt or killed attempting to get these concessions, these bands of employees fought on. And after all of that struggle, the evidence is clear the Union movement was actually very good for American companies, making them the industrial and service leaders of the world.
It wasn’t really all that new idea, long before Union members were being called Communists and Socialists, they were known as Guilds and Confraternaties where talented workers banded together to level the playing field between consuming companies or individuals and workers supplying the effort and expertise. Collective power is a very old concept, in fact the only word for employees who don’t band together to better their lives is slaves.
A group or organization that collectively organizes workers is good not only for the workers but also for those who employ them. The Union or Guild provides a single point of contact for all employment negotiations. This means that there is a single set of rules and costs for employment, which make planning and projection much easier. When approached in partnership these organizations enable. When approached in competition the relationship is rarely profitable. No one wins in a adversarial negotiation or a strike. The workers might eventually get back pay and the company might start running smoothly again, but the intervening time is lost to all.
That is why the current actions of Verizon’s management is questionable at best. 45,000 trained and experienced linemen, installers, and other service workers have been out for a week demanding that Verizon negotiate in good faith. The Communication Workers of America have put concessions on the table, but sensing the toughness of the current times Verizon management is going all out. Taking advantage of the surplus in unemployed people, Verizon is hoping to eliminate or “roll-back” all the contract specifications that it has taken years of negotiating to achieve. They are attempting to deal a powerful psychological blow to their workforce and force them to accept a brand new deal.
Verizon has several services that are selling like hotcakes right now, FIOS, a premium Internet and television service is probably their biggest. We might be tempted to feel that maybe the unionized employees are too expensive, however a quick look at this years stock holder’s meeting report show’s that obviously they don’t feel the same way about the top 5 in their management team. Although they didn’t meet their target goals, they still managed to walk away with over a quarter of a billion dollars over the last 4 years in salary and stocks. A quarter of a billion? Oh, and they get to use company cars and jets for personal use as well.
Why not? Verizon pulled in 100 billion in revenue and over 6 billion in pure profit this year, even after paying their owners VodaPhone a 10 billion dollar dividend. VodaPhone is a multinational conglomerate operating directly, or in partnership, in over 65 countries. However, somehow those 45,000 workers who made this all happen are getting it in the neck. This is a tough time for workers, but not Verizon.
Those workers were out in the rain yesterday and today waving wet signs and being sprayed by passing cars as they heaved up waves of dirty water from rain soaked streets. They’ll be out tomorrow as well, their hard-earned vacations cancelled and mortgages and school expenses looming. At the end of August they will no longer have medical insurance coverage.
It’s easy to overlook that these workers are all middle class Americans who have negotiated their employment contracts. Years of consistent service has brought Verizon to it’s success. The “Hard line” workers who climb poles in the rain, lug heavy ladders through the bushes and have to deal with the inevitable wasp’s nest while balancing high above the street are the ones who made all this success possible.
Verizon’s problem is that this is not the kind of work it’s possible to ship offshore. It takes trained skilled hands right in our own neighborhoods. This is a business that needs a strong manual labor component, and it’s expensive labor because it has to be done knowledgeably with experience. However in the midst of their success, Verizon management has chosen to take advantage of the current economic situation and try and devalue their own workforce.
As a consequence 45,000 people don’t know if they will have jobs again. They don’t know if the years of service they’ve put in to these careers are wasted. They don’t even know if they can keep their houses, pay that college tuition for their children or do any of the other things they had planned on. You need consistent employment to plan, or even eat regularly. You put in your time, day after day, rain or shine (or snow). You get in your truck when the storms have knocked down your neighbors power telephone and cable and work until it’s fixed. That’s your job and you do it because it pays the bills and you’re good at it. You show up every day because that’s the deal. You work consistently and the company pays you and gives you benefits, until they don’t.
That’s the real conundrum, where’s the loyalty? Where’s the fair dealing? Even if the strike is settled how do you trust a company who may just pull this again in a couple of years? How do any of us do business with a company who at a time of their greatest profit, dumps 45,000 employees out on the street? Just close our eyes and pay the bill?
I guess as a worker you hope the Union can hold together and settle the strike so you can go back to work for another few years. I guess we as customers can hope we don’t have a problem that will cause some inexperienced manager, shipped in to cover from the mid-west, to come out and spend the entire week trying to fix our problem. But this won’t be over soon. Just as we can’t seriously expect a CEO winging his way in the private jet to see anything but the bottom line, we can’t expect the thousands of union members to give up their homes and futures without a fight.
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2011
Prentiss Gray is a writer and columnist and currently writes the Domesti-Tech Blog for Gannett. He can be reached through his website at www.prentissgray.com