BOSTON – From the St. James Avenue side of Copley Square on Thursday afternoon, passers-by could be forgiven for wondering what the group of 300 people in red T-shirts opposite them was cheering about. If they were told that they were seeing the front lines of a desperate battle for the future of the American working class, they wouldn’t believe it. But the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers members and their families did not turn out for a nice day in the sun. They were there to fight.
The general public may be aware that 39,000 unionized Verizon workers (out of a total of 178,000) have been out on strike for a few days—including many here in Boston. But the vast majority of onlookers don’t understand the stakes.
Verizon (officially Verizon Communications, Inc.) is no ordinary company. Rather it’s a vast telecommunications conglomerate that has benefited hugely from government tax breaks, subsidies, and a favorable regulatory climate since it was created in 2000 out of the merger of Bell Atlantic (which had only recently merged with fellow “Baby Bell” NYNEX) and GTE.
It has two major businesses: its traditional wireline service, based on the old copper wire phone system and the newer fiber optic FiOS service (weirdly coming soon to Boston six years after Verizon said it would stopping building it out in any new cities). That’s where virtually all of the company’s 39,000 unionized workers are employed. Then it has Verizon Wireless—which was originally a joint venture of Bell Atlantic and the British telecom Vodafone, bought outright by Verizon in 2014. Only a handful of its wireless employees are currently unionized.
Basically, Verizon leadership wants to focus on its extremely profitable wireless division and cut back its wireline service. The numbers show why. According to Fortune magazine, “Wireless now brings in the vast majority of the company’s sales and profits. Last year, for example, the wireless unit brought in revenue of $91.7 billion, up 5% from a year earlier, and an operating profit of nearly $30 billion. The older wireline unit, which also includes wired video and Internet service, brought in revenue of only $37.7 billion, a 2% decline from the year before, and an operating profit of just $2.2 billion.”
Unfortunately, Verizon—like so many companies these days (our “new Boston neighbors” at General Electric spring to mind)—is a world class tax dodger and loves soaking the government for free handouts. According to the nonprofit Citizens for Tax Justice, between 2008 and 2013, the corporation made over $42 billion in profits, received a $732 million tax break (an effective federal tax rate of -2 percent), and paid almost $1.3 billion in state taxes (an effective state tax rate of 3 percent). In the same period, it made almost $4 billion in foreign profits and paid $274 million in taxes (an effective foreign tax rate of 7 percent). And this year? In the first quarter of 2016, Verizon has made $4.31 billion in profits.
According to the nonprofit Good Jobs First, Verizon has also received about $149 million in state and federal subsidies. Free money. And about $1.5 billion in federal loans, loan guarantees, and bailout assistance. Almost free money.
The nonprofit Americans for Tax Fairness adds: “Verizon also reported $1.9 billion in accumulated offshore profits in 2012, on which it paid no U.S. income taxes … Verizon raked in $956 million in federal contracts in 2011, according to the federal government. It also recently landed a new nine-year government-wide contract worth up to $5 billion to provide communications services and equipment to federal agencies.”
So Verizon is filthy rich with help from its friends in the government. Just like its predecessor, AT&T, in the days of “natural monopoly” before its 1984 breakup into regional Baby Bells. Unlike the old AT&T, though, Verizon is not interested in putting up with a unionized workforce in exchange for what are approaching monopoly profits in markets it and the handful of other remaining telecoms dominate. It has eliminated thousands of unionized jobs since 2000. How many? There were 85,000 unionized Verizon workers on strike in that year. There are 39,000 now. Do the math.
This brings us to the central issue of the strike. Verizon wants to convert lots of decent jobs—unionized and ununionized—to contract jobs. Many of them abroad. Union leaders recently told CNN Money: “Verizon has outsourced 5,000 jobs to workers in Mexico, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic.” The company is also “hiring more low-wage, non-union contractors.” Increasing wages, minimizing out-of-pocket health costs, preserving job security, keeping traditional pensions, and stopping forced out-of-state work transfers are all very important issues, too. And certainly worthy of more discussion in these pages. But, as ever, contingent work is a dagger pointed at the throat of organized labor. According to Computerworld, the Trade Adjustment Assistance forms that workers losing their jobs due to outsourcing file with the US Department of Labor show that offshoring jobs is indeed proceeding apace at Verizon—despite management denials.
Once jobs have left the US, it’s highly unlikely they’re coming back. And if it’s hard for unions to organize units like Verizon Wireless now, it’s nearly impossible to organize workers transnationally. Similarly, once “regular” full-time jobs with benefits have been replaced with lousy part-time, contract and other contingent jobs, it’s very difficult to convert them back. And it’s extremely difficult to organize contingent workers into unions or other types of labor organizations.
That is why this strike matters to all American workers. If well organized and militant union members at Verizon—who have gone on strike against the company and its predecessors in 1983, 1986, 1989, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2011 and now—can’t stop the outsourcing and destruction of decent jobs, unorganized workers spread across the planet in industries like telecommunications will find the task insurmountable.
Yet that’s where we’re heading. The end of traditional labor unions. The end of decent jobs. The war of all against all. This is where latter day capitalism is taking us. Unless we help good unions like CWA and IBEW win this strike, and start expanding the labor movement again. This isn’t about “the dignity of labor,” as the Boston Globe would have it. It’s about class war. Working people didn’t start it. But we sure as hell had better finish it. Before it finishes us.
Readers who would like to support the Verizon strikers should visit standuptoverizon.com
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.
Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
Executive editor and associate publisher, DigBoston. Executive director of Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Former founder and editor/publisher of Open Media Boston. 2018 & 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Award Winner.