Political science lessons from Verizon strikers

June 1, 2016

What did the corporate media miss because of their zealous disinterest in the 45-day strike against telecommunications giant Verizon? Danny Katch fills in the holes.

THERE HAVE been a lot of surprising developments in U.S. politics this year, but 2016 also has a retro side. Not only are the major remaining candidates all past retirement age, but they each seem to want to revive a certain era out of the past.

Bernie Sanders wants to revive the liberal Democratic Party of the 1960s and early '70s--with a dash of the New Deal 1930s splashed in. Donald Trump is a gruesome reminder of the worst of the Reaganite 1980s--from the racist backlash to defective tanning salons. And Hillary Clinton's obviously wants a 1990s restoration that puts her and her family back in their rightful place on the throne.

But all that was nothing compared to the old-school news late last week that 39,000 phone company workers won a victory in their six-week strike against Verizon, one of the most powerful corporations in the country.

Union workers on the picket line? How quaint--strikes are at their lowest level in a century. And labor winning a big strike? Impossible.

Certainly that's what Verizon bosses seemed to think. The company had geared up for a strike for more than a year, making preparations to field an army of scabs. In negotiations, it seemed to dare workers to walk with outrageous demands like mandatory two-month transfers to distant states.

Strikers and supporters picket outside a Verizon Wireless store
Strikers and supporters picket outside a Verizon Wireless store (Paul Weaver)

When the unions finally decided to strike, Verizon bosses confidently predicted the walkout wouldn't affect its earnings. Some financial analysts even speculated that the company might not take much of a hit because of the "efficiency of nonunion replacements over union labor."

Instead, the scabs' bumbling caused installations in Verizon's critical fiber-optic Internet network to decline--and along with it came Verizon's second-quarter earnings projections and stock price.

It was 21st century proof of another old-fashioned truth--when the people who do the work that makes a company rich stop doing that work, the company stops being so rich. It also turns out that skilled, experienced and, yes, unionized Verizon workers were a lot better at their jobs than the clueless and sometimes drunk managers and scabs.

The unions took on and beat a powerful 21st-century corporation in the same basic way they did in the 19th and 20th--by withholding their labor and watching the bosses squirm.

This is, of course, supposed to be impossible in a digital economy where workers without multiple degrees are hopelessly irrelevant.

In fact, the striking Verizon workers are on the cutting edge of the new economy. Most of them are the people who install, maintain and sell broadband Internet. And now others who work at Verizon Wireless stores have their first union contract as part of the agreement that ended the strike. These are the very retail and service workers that unions are supposedly incapable of organizing.

VERIZON THOUGHT it could turn public opinion against workers with full-page newspaper ads claiming--falsely--that the strikers were spoiled rotten, making $130,000 a year.

The company tried to plead poverty while it was making $1.5 billion each month--in profits! To break down that math, Verizon generates so much surplus cash from its supposedly overpaid workforce that it could create a new $130,000 job every four minutes.

The same media whose advertising departments gladly accepted Verizon's money had news departments that barely covered the strike. You can decide for yourself whether that's a coincidence.

And yet strikers reported that they had never gotten so much public support--from passerby honking their horns to community organizations marching alongside them on picket lines to municipalities officially boycotting the company for the duration of the strike.

Turns out a lot of people don't need the news to tell them which side to take in a fight between workers and a giant corporation.

But that doesn't mean it's not important for more people to learn about this strike--because it has many lessons they won't get from the endless, breathless coverage of the presidential elections that so dominates the airwaves.

The mainstream media presents a picture of a society in which Donald Trump is the voice of angry white working class men. The Verizon picket lines had thousands of actual angry, white working-class men who were proudly protesting alongside co-workers and supporters of every race and gender--and they were chanting a word that never makes it into Trump's speeches: "Union."

The election coverage makes it seem like one of the main issues facing American workers is trade deals that allow other countries to take "our" jobs. But during this strike, it was clear that the people trying to steal union jobs were American-born managers and scabs--while Verizon call center workers in the Philippines stood up for their striking sisters and brothers in the U.S.

The media portrays Donald Trump as a renegade who is unafraid to say what he thinks about companies that are hurting American workers. But during the strike, when workers showed what it means to fight for their jobs--not by sending out tweets from a Florida country club, but putting everything on the line--Trump kept his mouth shut. Hopefully that will reveal to those who might have thought otherwise what a fraud he really is.

Finally, the Verizon strike gave a different meaning to being political. Normally, our only role in "politics" is to go out to vote one day in November and choose between candidates who are richer than any of us and backed by people who are richer than all of us put together. Other than that, all we can do is hang out on the Internet and scream on social media.

This spring, 39,000 of the people who work on that Internet showed that there's another way to be involved in politics.

Their union gave concrete expression to the left-wing message of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign and set a shining example of what organized labor can do beyond supporting the Democrats and hoping for the best.

And the Verizon strike showed that the vote to join a union or go on strike can be the most powerful vote you have.

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