After 15 months of negotiations and a 13-day strike last year, the tentative agreement reached September 19 between Verizon and unions representing 45,000 workers on the East Coast has a lot of people disappointed. The deal includes historic concessions and represents a series of missed opportunities for the union to stop a decade of backsliding.
Verizon's goal was to roll back 50 years of collective bargaining. The fact that the company was unable to achieve everything it wanted on many regressive demands doesn't change what it did achieve--significant advances in its decades-old goals of cost-shifting and concessions, especially around health care premiums.
Union members are hearing a lot of happy talk about how "we are coming out of this contract financially ahead of the game," but behind that is an acceptance that we can't challenge the company like we used to.
Yet on the same day that the union officially announced an agreement, the Chicago teachers were returning to work after pushing back the drive for concessions to an extent that no one believed was possible. The teachers' victory highlights how adrift the national leaderships of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) are when it comes to fighting a more aggressive company and dealing with changing technology.
Verizon started negotiations with a confident attack designed to turn back the clock by half a century. With over 100 concessions on their wish list, they took aim at every element of the contract--from job security and pensions to tuition assistance and sick days.
Because management's agenda at the start was so aggressively hostile, the current deal looks benign by comparison. But the fact that they wanted to gut us doesn't make getting skinned alive a victory for our side.
As the chief steward of CWA Local 1106 wrote in a letter after the announcement of the tentative agreement:
I approach this contract...as the very real writing on the wall. It screams, "We are a dying breed." We are being led out to slaughter, and it is, in fact, our top leaders who are rounding us up for the company. Four years of nothing is what I read. Four years of progressive givebacks and the further deterioration of middle class jobs. I work for this company to make a fair salary plus benefits, not to pay for them. I work to provide a quality of life for myself and my family that meets and exceeds the norm.
The tentative agreement includes first-ever worker contributions to health care premiums, which start at $30 single/$60 family per month, and jump within three years to $55 single/$110 family per month. Plus there's a $50 a month additional charge for tobacco users, and another $100 a month surcharge on people who don't complete a "health risk assessment."
While the base dollar amount is comparatively low, this is clearly just the beginning. The fact that the cost of health care premiums nearly doubles in the first contract can only mean a rapid escalation in the future.
Retirees currently pay nothing for continued health care, but the new contract will have all retirees after January 1, 2013, paying the same rate as employees--a sizable bite out of retiree benefits, especially for lower-paid employees like call-center workers.
The company also achieved other cost-shifting measures like increasing the cost of prescriptions, raising out-of-pocket maximums and deductibles, and charging for specific health services. Together, these will represent millions in savings for a tremendously profitable company--simply increasing their profits at our expense.
Other concessions like changes to the absence control plan (sick days) target workers with chronic health conditions or those who have suffered injuries by limiting the number of paid sick days to 10 a year.
By the company's calculation, over 75 percent of employees use eight or fewer sick days a year. But for the nearly 25% who use more--many of them having suffered traumatic injuries from falls or vehicle accidents, or repetitive stress injuries--this represents a pay cut. (Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, workers can take off up to 60 days a year for sickness or caring for a dependent, but pay is not guaranteed.
Perhaps most problematic provision is the continued acceptance of tiered benefits. New hires will now have no fixed benefit pension, just a 401(k) program--current employees have both. This outcome on retirement joins the two-tier system on job security--everyone hired after 2003 basically has none (although it's hard to find anyone, especially among technical workers, who hasn't already been laid off).
Current retirees have been vocal on Facebook pages that this generation has squandered the fights of the past. Selling out new hires all but guarantees even deeper cuts down the road as we are welcoming divisions into our ranks.
There are other changes--for a full analysis of the available details, see the comparison at the CWA Local 1101 website--but the cost of the concessions cannot be measured only in dollars.
In retrospect, it seems clear that the leadership of the bargaining unit had no strategy for winning this fight and was simply trying to avoid the worst of the attacks. Early on, members were told the union was willing to give up on health care to bargain around other issues. This is hardly an inspirational battle cry. No one can rally around the calls to "be realistic" or to "give something to get something."
Many members believe it was a mistake to return to work after 13 days on the picket line in August of last year. The leadership's claim that that the company wanted a strike so they could permanently replace us seemed less likely the longer negotiations dragged on. The company had every opportunity to force a strike by declaring an impasse and imposing a "last, best, and final offer," but they didn't.
A strike would have been a risky proposition for unions, but it had the potential to mobilize the pent-up frustrations of a workforce enduring increasingly harsh conditions--some areas of New York City have been working split weekends since June.
Union leaders are claiming this contract "victory" was the result of a successful mobilization while we were back at work. But that overstates the degree to which members were asked to participate.
The pattern of the mobilization was, first, apocalyptic predictions by union leadership, followed by poorly organized responses afterward. Most members feel exhausted and demoralized by this prolonged process, and since both sides entered mediation in July, they have felt thoroughly shut out of any discussion of what should happen next. Thousands of members signed letters to CWA President Larry Cohen saying that we would never surrender, and we'd rather strike than take concessions--but these fell on deaf ears.
No one is enthusiastic about the contract. People anticipated much worse, and so they will be pulled toward voting for it, based on fatigue and fear.
However within hours of the official announcement, the gears began to turn for a "no" vote campaign. Already, rumors are circulating that executive board members, or whole local boards, may come out publically to recommend rejecting the contract. This might not be enough to turn the tide, but it will be a crucially important component of continuing to build a culture across locals that is member-driven.
As the Local 1106 steward wrote in his letter responding to the deal:
My brothers and sisters, please do not concede to this contract. We are better than "settling on" a contract. I know that your families and loved ones are better than being settled on. Would you deny yourself a better life if you had the opportunity to fight for it? We still have that opportunity. VOTE NO to the ratification of this miserable contract.
Your work now will be your toughest task yet, and that task will be to talk to as many people as possible and spread the word that we have been let down. We have been manipulated by the National for the last time. We must continue to take back our union by sending a message to the National that says, "We are better than this. We deserve respect and proper consideration. WE WILL STRIKE FOR A FAIR AND PROGRESSIVE CONTRACT."
This article was originally published by Socialist Worker.