After nine months of frustrated bargaining, 39,000 workers from Virginia to Massachusetts called a strike against Verizon on 13 April. Represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), these telecom workers are pushing back. Their goal is to preserve job quality and security. They want to prevent further off-shoring and out-sourcing of jobs and additional call-center closures; and they want to make Verizon stop transferring technicians to work sites far from home, for up to two months at a stretch. The walkout is about preserving the kinds of high-pay, high-skill jobs that used to be held by millions of working-class Americans.
This is the biggest U.S. strike in five years – in fact, since CWA last took action in 2011. This is telling, because it shows that the telecommunications sector remains a bastion of organized labor’s strength – in a country where just 6.7% of the private sector is unionized. Right away, despite the company’s use of ten thousand non-union Verizon employees as scabs, the strike began to slow new installations of Internet and television service. If the past is a guide, soon it will hit at corporate users’ more complex and sensitive telecom needs.
However, labor’s strength is concentrated on just one side of the networking industry: CWA and IBEW represent workers in Verizon’s wireline business. Services delivered over copper wires and optical fibers accounted for just three-tenths of the company’s revenue and a mere 7 percent of its operating income in 2015. In the face of mounting competitive pressures in its wireline business, furthermore, Verizon is revising its profit strategy. On one hand, it has invested a couple of hundred billion dollars in wireless systems and in what it calls FiOS – a bundled service of internet, telephone and television run over a fiber-optic communications network built and maintained by unionized workers. On the other, hoping both to increase the profitability of this gargantuan network investment and to steal a march on new “over-the-top” competitors such as Netflix, Verizon has been purchasing digital content and advertising services, and selectively pruning its wireline assets. Last year, notably, it sold its copper-wire and FiOS West networks to Frontier Communications despite heavy opposition from telecom workers, who demanded unsuccessfully that the Federal Communications Commission block the deal.
The proceeds from this sale to Frontier helped Verizon to pay for additional spectrum with which to expand its wireless services. The company’s 112 million wireless subscribers account for the majority of its outsized profits – not surprisingly, given that the wages and benefits drawn by its wireless workers are lower than those of their peers in its wireline segment.
This disparate working environment, as CWA posted on its website, results from the fact that “Collective bargaining rights and the right to organize have been under corporate assault for three decades” – and telecommunications workers have been directly in the line of fire. As recently as 2005, Verizon’s workers were nearly 70 percent unionized; today it’s about 27 percent. Verizon was only able to introduce and expand mobile systems and services as a union-free zone, however, because of pro-corporate government policy changes. Market liberalization and deregulation were, as we’ve explained in a previous post, code words under which to attack working-class living standards and self-organization in telecommunications.
This, finally, is why the high-level political attention drawn by the Verizon strike is important. Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (probably reluctantly) have offered words of support to the strikers; Sanders marched with the CWA members whose union had endorsed his candidacy. It’s too soon to suggest that the political pendulum may begin to swing in a different direction. However, the Verizon strike adds momentum to a gathering trend. The Chicago Teachers’ Union is standing up, both to the city’s mayor and the state’s terroristic governor, while movements are building nationwide to organize fast-food and Wal-mart employees and to introduce a higher minimum wage. Change is in the air.
 Reuters, “The Verizon Strike Is Already Hitting New Customer Installations,” Fortune, April 15, 2016
 Noam Scheiber and Brian X. Chen, “In Verizon Strike, Blue-Collar Stress Hits Sidewalks,” New York Times, April 14, 2016
 The Lex Column, “Verizon: Cutting the Cords,” Financial Times, April 19, 2016
 Hassan Ali, “Verizon Communications Inc and Hearst To Jointly Acquire Complex Media,” Bidness, April 19, 2016.
 Andrew Stewart, The Verizon Standoff and the Future of Labor, Communication and Privacy, counterpunch, September 15, 2015; “CWA, IBEW Protest Proposed Verizon-Frontier Communications Deal,” Maritime Trade Department, AFL-CIO, April 10, 2010
 Mike Snider, “Sanders, Verizon Spar Over Striking Workers,” USA Today, April 15, 2016 ; Sean O’Kane, “Verizon Workers Take Over Mid-Town Manhattan in the Second Week of Their Strike,” The Verge, April 18, 2016
 Juan Perez, Jr., Monique Garcia, and Celeste Bott, “CTU’s Lewis Calls Rauner ‘the new ISIS recruit,’” Chicago Tribune, April 21, 2016