NEW YORK -- Outside Verizon corporate headquarters in downtown Manhattan, a group of more than 40 union employees gathered wearing red shirts and placards proclaiming "CWA on Strike For Middle Class Jobs."
Over 45,000 Verizon workers -- 35,000 represented by the union Communications Workers of America, 10,000 by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers -- went on strike early Sunday morning when contract negotiations between the unions and Verizon broke down. The workers are striking, they say, because the company wouldn't budge on the nearly 100 concessions headquarters has asked employees to make on a set of broad-ranging issues. At the top of the list: wide spread wage cuts, increased employee contributions to health care plans and pensions -- which the company has proposed to freeze for current employees and eliminate for new hires.
The contract expired Saturday at midnight and covered the heavily unionized East Coast wireline division of the company, including FiOS, Verizon's television and Internet service. Verizon's wireless division is not, and never has been, unionized.
Those gathered cast their fight as larger than just one union fighting management for a bigger piece of the corporate profits. More broadly, the workers manning the picket line on Sunday afternoon perceived their struggle as being against a national effort to roll back union power and increase the gap between executive compensation and rank and file earnings -- a gap that has widened in the last thirty years as union power has waned. The workers outside headquarters found a rallying cry in the attack on collective bargaining rights last winter in Wisconsin.
In front of headquarters, an employee on a bullhorn shouted: "We ain't going back on our knees! This isn't Wisconsin, this isn't Ohio. The line stops here." The crowd erupted in cheers.
"It's mind-boggling: These are things we won in the past," said Greg Albi, a Verizon field technician with the company for thirty years. Albi has been outside Verizon headquarters since 7:00 a.m. Sunday morning.
"They want to take fifty years of our contract and just throw it away like it never existed," adds Al Russo, a Verizon employee for 11 years and a chief steward at CWA local 1101. Russo has been out since 10 p.m. Saturday night. He is losing his voice and looks exhausted but he insists he isn't tired. He says his son, age 8, just texted him "keep it up Daddy."
While talks are officially on hold at the moment, both sides say that they are ready to continue negotiating -- but with caveats.
"We are willing to negotiate and we are ready and waiting for the unions to sit down and continue these discussions," says Richard Young, a company spokesman. "That said, we expect the union to come with an open mind."
The crowd marched in a loop in front of the building shouting traditional labor slogans: "What's disgusting? Union Busting!" "Who has the power? You have the Power," and "No contract: no work." At frequent intervals, a Verizon employee or two would walk in or out of the building -- staring straight ahead -- and shouts of "scab!" and booing would erupt from the crowd.
"What are we going to do?" Albi asks. "We live in a progressive world. Things should get better, not worse."
Like many workers interviewed on the picket line, Albi sees the strike in a context larger than his own benefits, but he has personal concerns too. He worries that if the union gives in, he won't be able to help his two children finish college. "It's hard enough," he said. "I already have loans for them -- if I get stuck for money they will get stuck with the debt. The next generation will get screwed, too."
This is the fourth strike Albi has participated in, but, he says, "This is the first time they've asked for so many givebacks. They're trying to break the union. And we're here to say 'no.'"
The union is accusing the company of making extreme demands which will dramatically erode the middle class life union employees have fought for over the past half-century. Verizon, meanwhile, claims that the concessions are necessary for their wireline division to stay competitive. While the company has earned around $3 billion in the first six months of this year, according to a company spokesman, they say that the wireless division is the real profit earner and that the wireline business has been declining for the past decade.
"The cost structure of this business was set in place many decades ago at a time when Verizon was the dominant phone provider," says Young. He denies that they are trying to break the union: "This has nothing to do with breaking the union. It has everything to do with coming to the realization that we're operating with cost restraints that are out of touch with today's marketplace."
Union employees say they are outraged that the company is asking for major concessions while they are profitable. Former Verizon Chief Executive Officer Ivan Seidenberg (who stepped down on Aug. 1, 2011) is ranked 10th on the Forbes list of Executive Pay in 2011.
At stake, say labor experts, are the future of the union in the industry, and the ability of workers in the field to earn a solid living wage. Union employees earn on average between approximately $60,000 and $80,000 a year.
"I think it's really a question of [whether] union standards are going to be higher than nonunion standards in the industry," says Jeffrey H. Keefe, an associate professor at Rutgers Univeristy School of Management and Labor Relations.
"It's a question of: will they continue to have bargaining power, going forward?" The strike, he says, is a "declaration that this going to be a very tough-fought battle."