Category: Labor

Strike

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.[1] 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.[2] Right away, despite the company’s use of ten thousand non-union Verizon employees as scabs,[3] the strike began to slow new installations of Internet and television service.[4] 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.[5]  In the face of mounting competitive pressures in its wireline business,[6] 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,[7] 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.[8]

The proceeds from this sale to Frontier helped Verizon to pay for additional spectrum with which to expand its wireless services.[9] 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”[10] – 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.[11] 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.[12] 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,[12] 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.

[1] Standing Up to Verizon’s War on Unions, Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 1250, April 22, 2016

[2] Bureau of Labor Statistics, Union Members 2015

[3] Ryan Knutson, “Verizon Turns To Shadow Workforce Amid Strike,” Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2016

[4] Reuters, “The Verizon Strike Is Already Hitting New Customer Installations,” Fortune, April 15, 2016

[5] Noam Scheiber and Brian X. Chen, “In Verizon Strike, Blue-Collar Stress Hits Sidewalks,” New York Times, April 14, 2016

[6] The Lex Column, “Verizon: Cutting the Cords,” Financial Times,  April 19, 2016

[7] Hassan Ali, “Verizon Communications Inc and Hearst To Jointly Acquire Complex Media,” Bidness, April 19, 2016.

[8] 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

[9] Kevin Rizzo, “What’s Going on with the Verizon Strike?” Law Street, April 16, 2016

[10]Collective Bargaining,” Communications Workers

[11] Mackenzie Baris, “Five Reasons to care about the Verizon Strike,” Jobs with Justice, April 11, 2016

[12] 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

[13] Juan Perez, Jr., Monique Garcia, and Celeste Bott, “CTU’s Lewis Calls Rauner ‘the new ISIS recruit,’” Chicago Tribune, April 21, 2016

Low-Wage Workers & the Internet Industry

What are the overall impacts of tech companies on occupational structures, employment patterns, and labor practices? This question is large, complicated, and vital.[1]

To engage it, a meaningful starting-point pertains to low-wage workers. As well-compensated engineers and entrepreneurs have been raised up as the Internet industry’s public face, low-wage workers have become a mere afterthought. The very terms that analysts use to characterize this category of workers suffer from ambiguity and imprecision: “flexible,” “independent,” “temporary,” “contingent,” “freelance,” “casual,” “precarious.”  The International Labor Organization (ILO) states, simply, that such workers fall within a “non-standard form” of employment.[2] Two facts, however, are certain. First, low-waged workers are crucial to the business models that are being advanced by Internet companies.  Second, low-wage workers in the “new economy” are increasingly pursuing “old-economy”-type job struggles and demands.[3]

To press ahead from here, a conception of the labor process is essential.

The Labor Process

Identified and explicated forty years ago by Harry Braverman,[4] and further clarified by historians and political economists, the labor process provides an irreplaceable analytical fulcrum. Both to cheapen costs and to augment control,[5] capital has continually attacked the labor process as it exists, with the aim of altering and even reconstituting everything from the content and sequencing of specific job-tasks, to the technical division of labor within companies and industries, to the location of production processes. Beginning during the 1970s, a new and expanded cycle of innovations around networks and other ICT tools permitted capital to intervene in the labor process across an unprecedented range, which encompassed an increasing number of information-processing jobs.[6] Making explicit, aggregating and codifying what had been workers’ tacit knowledge, and/or generating and collecting new categories of data, corporate suppliers and corporate users of networks worked to standardize more tasks and to quantify more outputs. Managers, as Huws explains, gained new freedom to disaggregate and reorganize work, and to relocate or contract it out in line with their varied corporate strategies.[7]

Prominent recent examples of this much wider trend include Uber and its rival, Lyft, alongside rental platform Airbnb, labor outsourcer TaskRabbit, the Instacart grocery delivery service, and the dry cleaning service Washio. Such companies invade existing industries by deploying network resources to compile, codify, rearrange and contract out existing labor processes. In the process they extract data from, and push costs onto, workers and users alike.

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