As the communication workers strike against Verizon enters its second week, it has grown increasingly ugly, with reports of sabotaged equipment, picketing workers urging customers to boycott Verizon Wireless and Verizon telling investors that the strike will hit its bottom line this quarter.
Both sides appear to be digging in for a potentially protracted fight in what industry observers say is an especially high-stakes battle, some suggesting the outcome will be no less than a referendum on the strength and relevance of organized labor in the 21st century.
“This is an old-fashioned labor war,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University. “The labor movement sees the Verizon strike as a fight for its survival.”
“The question is, is there going to be a unionized presence in this advanced, technologically innovative kind of industry?” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Labor, Work, and Democracy at the University of California — Santa Barbara.
The likely answer doesn’t bode well for unions.
Verizon’s highly profitable wireless business is almost entirely nonunionized, and telecommunications consultant Tim Farrar pointed out that the company has been investing more in content, buying AOL last year and expressing interest in acquiring Yahoo!
“In some ways, maybe you could say this is their last stand… not only subordinated to the wireless business, but also to these new ambitions,” Farrar said.
“The real dilemma of unions has been that job losses have been increasing,” Chaison said. “Unions tend to be in declining sectors of the economy... They’re stuck organizing sectors of the economy which are no longer growing.”
That’s why experts say the timing of the strike — the workers have been without a contract since last August — is no coincidence.
“By doing it at this time, it resonates in quite a big way with what’s going on politically,” said Joseph McCartin, history professor and director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.
Even if the timing is prescient, though, Verizon still has some advantages; primarily, that it’s still making money from both wireless and strike-impacted wireline services, and those networks are automated.
Verizon said thousands of nonunion employees had been trained and deployed to handle the work performed by striking union members, but the longer the strike drags on, the more frayed that patch will become, especially as the summer months bring potentially service-interrupting thunderstorms to the Northeast.
“Over time, there’s erosion of quality and maintenance,” Lichtenstein said, but by that point in might be too late.
“Long strikes tend to be lost strikes,” he said.
Experts say the union’s best-case scenario is that public discontent and political pressure grow to the point where regulators step in. They might examine whether Verizon should be regulated more like a utility, with a universal broadband mandate replacing the 20th century universal telephone service mandate.
Although Verizon recently announced it was building out “a new fiber platform” in Boston, earlier plans for more extensive expansion up and down the East Coast have stalled, prompting an audit by New York City that charged the company with underserving many lower-income residents.
“Verizon substantially failed to meet its commitment to the people of New York City,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement last year. “We will hold them accountable.”
“If you want to make FiOS work now, you have to be a utility because you have to push out into areas that are not going to be all that profitable,” Keefe said.
“Up until now universal service has been telephony, that is clearly inadequate today,” Keefe said. “I think the FCC has got to make some decisions.”
Union leadership has called on Verizon to build out its FiOS fiber network and still continue maintaining traditional copper-wire phone lines for those customers who still only have land lines — a duty framed as good corporate citizenship, but one that also would protect strikers’ jobs by ensuring that their skills remained relevant and necessary for Verizon’s continued business operations.
Tying their cause to political issues of the day might ultimately help the striking communication workers prevail, but the flip side of a victory that empowers a broader swath of workers is a defeat that not only weakens the union, perhaps permanently shifting the dynamic of power, but that tarnishes politicians that supported the strike.
“A defeat for the workers would be a blow not just to Verizon workers but to other workers and allies of workers in the Democratic party,” McCartin said.