Editor’s Note: The article was originally published over at the Lancaster 15Now blog. Julia Scheib is a member of Lancaster 15Now and reports on the fight for 15 from the perspective of the activists and workers on the front lines of the movement. You can email Julia at email@example.com. Julia reported on the NYC Climate March for Raging Chicken Press back in September 2014. Welcome back, Julia!
While the afternoon sky threatened rain last Saturday, striking Verizon workers Kim* and Ryan stood outside their office on Duke Street in downtown Lancaster. Kim and Ryan, both consultants in the collections department who were hired in 2006, said they are scheduled to do this a few days a week and several Sundays a month in rotating shifts with their fellow union members.
Since April 13 about 100 Lancaster Verizon employees from various departments have been a part of the country’s largest labor strike — carried out by nearly 40,000 Verizon workers up and down the northeast corridor from Massachusetts to Virginia by members of the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The issues at stake include pensions, sick days, the amount retirees pay for health insurance, offshoring jobs, and outsourcing work to low-wage contractors.
It’s clear that the workers’ presence at the Duke Street office (across from the city’s public library) has become somewhat normal: drivers honk and wave in an offhand way; pedestrians stop to talk; and when three managers emerge from the building they exchange friendly greetings with the picketers.
Passing Kim and Ryan, who both wear signs, an older woman stops to raise her fist and say, “Good job,” “Good luck,” and “Hang in there.”
The two picketers said reactions from the public have been overwhelmingly positive. They’re glad, because they can use the support. Striking has disrupted their lives.
An article at Commondreams.org provides a disturbing example of Verizon duplicity.
When representatives from CWA and several other unions learned from workers in the Philippines that Verizon was publicly lying “about the extent of its offshoring of jobs,” they traveled to the Philippines to investigate, reports Nika Knight of CommonDreams. CWA found the report was true, that Verizon offshores work far beyond what it claims, paying workers $1.78 per hour and forcing uncompensated overtime.
Hearing of the union representatives’ overseas mission, a CWA representative said Verizon sent armed private security forces and a SWAT team to confront them. In a statement to Fortune, Verizon dismissed group’s findings and called the trip a “fancy vacation.”
A financial sacrifice
Though lacking hope the strike would come to an end anytime soon, all the workers interviewed expressed their determination to keep up the fight, because they highly value their jobs and want to keep the work they do in their local communities.
But it’s stressful to be on strike, they said.
Lynn, a 23-year employee of Verizon who picketed out in the chilly wind at the Red Rose Commons shopping center on Sunday, said she probably would have left the company by now if not for her kind supervisors and the good benefits.
During the strike the union pays workers a small amount from its relief fund. Lynn explained that they receive $200 on the fifteenth day, $200 weekly after that, $300 weekly starting on the thirty-first day, and $400 weekly starting on the fifty-seventh day and continuing until the strike ends.
Lynn said she now reads the newspaper for coupons and shops for groceries at the Dollar Store.
“The Dollar Store sells bread for $1.95 — it’s not as cheap as you’d think,” she said.
Although her husband has had to pick up benefits at his job to make up for the loss of hers and they’ve had to restrict their activities to avoid spending money, she considers herself lucky because her two kids are older and not dependent on her.
Ryan isn’t as lucky. He said that he and his wife have been without health insurance since May 1. Luckily, his five children are insured through CHIP.
Workers with pressing medical conditions that require treatment get relief from the fund, Ryan said, but everyone else loses their benefits.
Struggling to hold onto decent jobs
Nick, a mechanic who works on vehicles in Verizon’s fleet and has been with the company for 10 years, said that since he’s lost his benefits, he has had to cancel several doctor’s appointments, for his bad hips and his young son’s severe ADHD. He’s had to pick up work elsewhere, as well, to afford his son’s school tuition.
Nick’s wife and son were with him on Sunday, his son munching on red-white-and-blue Twizzlers donated to the picketers by a member of the public.
Nick values his job and wants to keep it even though Verizon more than doubled his commute near the end of last year for no good reason he can see — he now leaves home 90 minutes before he has to be at work. His second-shift schedule coupled with the commute makes it almost impossible to spend time with his family during the week.
In Nick’s opinion, Verizon already has too much power to move people without justification, but he is very concerned that in the next contract the company will further loosen the protection against moving workers or take it away altogether.
As bad as things are and could get for workers like him, contractors have it much worse. They are paid less and don’t have the benefit of union protection. It bothers Nick to think that his contractor co-workers spend holidays knowing that the regular employees they work alongside are getting paid while they get nothing. Many contractors quit soon after being hired, he said, but Verizon doesn’t seem to care: as the permanent employee workforce is reduced, a shift to contractors without union representation and benefits is becoming the Verizon way of business.
Nick believes he was the last mechanic hired by Verizon in Pennsylvania.
The high turnover he sees in contract employees is a stark contrast to the long-term loyalty of permanent employees, he said.
Working for Verizon can be hazardous, he said. “Some people retire, some people die,” he said. In his experience, permanent employees stick with the job until retirement or until they can’t work anymore.
Sue is a 20-year employee who works as a consultant in collections. A steward for CWA, she said she talks with another member who is on the bargaining team in the negotiations with Verizon.
“My perception… the company just wants demands. They just want to take us back to… ”
She trailed off, thinking.
“I’m not even sure where they want us to be. It’s so archaic. And we’re a company with profits of $1.5 to $1.8 billion monthly. It’s not like there’s a reason to what they’re asking for. It’s not money. They’re doing this because they can.”
According to USA Today, in the first quarter of 2016 Verizon reported a net profit of $4.4 billion.
Kim recalled seeing an online comment expressing the thought that the strikers should “get back to work,” that there are “hundreds of people that need jobs, who would like to work.”
That’s exactly the point, she said. Job security is one of the key issues in the negotiations.
“They’re trying to take away these jobs,” she said. “They’re trying to take away what we cherish.”
“I love my job, I love what I do, I just want to work,” Nick said.
But workers observed that the company shows increasingly little regard for its employees.
The striking workers expressed outrage at the words and actions of the company, which is simultaneously reaping huge profits — $39 billion in the past three years — and trying to cut labor costs by consolidating offices and outsourcing work to areas within the country and abroad.
Nick expressed incredulity at the plight of Verizon workers in the Philippines.
“To be exploited by a large company that’s making money those people couldn’t even fathom… It’s ridiculous,” he said. “And they’re doing it to keep lining their pockets.”
How to help the Verizon workers
To donate to help support the striking workers or find a picketing site or event near you, go to the Stand Up to Verizon webpage.
On Thursday, May 19, the unions are organizing a March to the White House. Find out more about the event RIGHT HERE.
You can reach Julia at julia.scheib@.
*Last names have been omitted, and in some cases first names changed, to protect workers from retaliation.