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On April 13, some 36,000 Verizon employees represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) went on strike. While this is one of the largest strikes in the United States in recent years, it somehow lacks the drama of the legendary labor battles of old. Perhaps that’s because the workers in this case are hardly downtrodden — in fact they have a pay and benefits package of around $130,000 per year on average. In addition, Verizon is offering the unionized workers a 6.5% wage increase along with continuation of job security, health insurance and retirement benefits.
Most people would find this to be a pretty good deal. That raises the question: what is actually going on here? Without being privy to the IBEW’s and CWA’s internal deliberations, there seem to be two possibilities.
One is that the unions are upset at the changing nature of technology, and hoping that a strike might somehow reverse that trend, which seems unlikely. In fact, the older landline segment of Verizon’s business, where the IBEW and CWA are concentrated, represents a declining share of revenue — down from 50 percent in 2008 to around 29 percent in 2015.
The second has to do with the political calendar, specifically the upcoming New York primary. With presidential candidates criss-crossing the state, setting up picket lines may have seemed an effective way to draw attention to the unions’ concerns. Sen. Bernie Sanders was quick to take the bait, accusing the company of “trying to destroy the lives of working Americans,” which sounds a bit dramatic given the wages and benefits mentioned above.
The last time the IBEW and CWA walked off the job was in 2011, and the affair lasted about two weeks. Whether this strike lasts that long is anyone’s guess, but the New York primary is on April 19. Things might actually settle down fairly quickly once the photo ops are out of the way.