Long Live the Picket Line

Hundreds of Verizon workers strike outside of the telecommunications company's Brooklyn offices on April 13, 2016 in New York City. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

On Tuesday, news broke that Verizon would return to the bargaining table with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). The renewed negotiations could bring to a close the largest US strike in five years, which has seen nearly forty thousand workers — mostly landline technicians but also some call-center and retail employees — walk out for more than a month.

At stake are the potential outsourcing of call-center jobs to the Philippines and Mexico, the implementation of forced overtime, the assignment of employees to other cities for months at a time, and the increased use of non-union contractors.

But beyond specific contract issues, the strike is drawing out the distinct paths forward for a labor movement that faces a strategic fork in the road.

The CWA, through the strike and its decision to endorse Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary, exemplifies one approach: high-risk, high-payoff, militant labor action paired with a break from the blank-check relationship with establishment Democrats. (Many IBEW locals have also voted to endorse Bernie Sanders, while the international has held off.)

That approach has not sat well with much of the commentariat. They have embraced Verizon’s description of the landline business — and of the workers who make it possible — as “legacy,” frequently quoting Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam’s assertion that the strike is about “nostalgia for the rotary-phone era.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board applauded McAdam’s denunciation of Sanders’s anti-Verizon rhetoric, writing that “credit is due to the rare executive willing to defend economic reality and stand up to political intimidation.”

But most contemptible was Mark Gimein’s New Yorker essay about “the Verizon workers’ shrinking world.” Gimein, who is under the impression that “a picket line is to a Democrat what a revival meeting is to an evangelical,” argues that labor’s future lies in a tamer, more policy-oriented road, without loud strikes and rudely still-existing workers.

As negotiations resume, it’s worth setting the record straight about what’s really at issue — and why a labor strategy of workplace action and bold political vision is more necessary than ever.

1. We’re not in the robot future yet — we still need skilled workers.

The landline workers who are striking are not part of a “shrinking world.” Though it might appear that everything operates on the Cloud nowadays, telecommunications companies still need physical infrastructure to support their wireless and web services. Verizon just doesn’t want to pay for the infrastructure, or the skilled work it takes to build and maintain it.

The Wall Street Journal admits this outright, writing: “Verizon isn’t even looking to shed jobs. It is merely seeking more flexibility to manage its workforce, such as consolidating under-used call centers and the ability to hire more outside contractors.”

Verizon wants to either do this as cheaply as possible (which is dangerous, and probably harmful to the customer) or eventually get other, non-union contractors to do it and just sell the product.

The union is the chief obstacle standing in the way. Just as manufacturing was never a “dying industry” — just one that capitalists found more useful when performed elsewhere by lower-paid workers — Verizon’s line technicians will have some work to do for the foreseeable future.

2. We still need strikes, and unions.

Gimein writes that the “greater hope in the labor movement these days comes not from the picket line but from legislative efforts such as the union-backed minimum wage initiative Fight for 15.”

This is a bizarre leap of logic. Fight for 15’s goals might be legislative, but its primary tactic has been — wait for it — strikes. To be sure, many on the Left have criticized Fight for 15 for prioritizing media optics over worker organization. But Gimein’s argument is almost precisely the opposite.

As he writes: “The way forward now is less in getting people to join unions and more in taking seriously the question that Sanders raised: what can be done for the millions of workers who don’t have a union and never will?” Yet even when it comes to carrying out the kind of legislative action Gimein prescribes, it’s very hard to advocate for workers, union or non-union, if you don’t have some unions around.

The union backing Fight for 15, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has been able to throw around its legislative weight only when it’s applied direct pressure to employers. No city that’s passed a minimum-wage ordinance has lacked a picket line.

3. The legislative route is a dead end.

Part of Gimein’s argument seems to be that because CWA members comprise a small slice of the Verizon workforce, this makes them irrelevant and their decent pay and work conditions, perhaps, unfair.

But what the striking workers lack in numbers they make up for with their strategic position. As Verizon’s sole unionized beachhead, CWA members will play a pivotal role in spreading unionization to the rest of the company’s ranks — the wireless and retail side in particular.

A strike defeat would forestall, if not foreclose, the possibility of organizing these workers — giving Verizon free rein to cut wages and attack working conditions. It would also make organizing harder in the retail industry more broadly, relegating millions of people — disproportionately women and people of color — to desperate poverty.

A successful strike, on the other hand, could shore up union strength, steadying the foundation for a drive into the ranks of the non-unionized.

It would also vindicate the strategy of organizing skilled technical and logistics workers in order to establish a foothold in companies that employ massive, difficult-to-organize workforces. While this “militant minority” strategy has had mixed results in the past, a victory at Verizon could give it new life.

If this seems like shaky ground to rebuild the labor movement, the legislative route Gimein advocates has proven, after decades of loyal use by some of the United States’s most powerful unions, disastrous. As inspiring as Sanders’s showing in the primaries has been, he is a lonely figure in a legislative arena largely hostile or indifferent to unions. The only way to fundamentally reshape that structural antipathy is to build power in the workplace.

For Gimein, the problem seems to be that strikes are difficult and workers are outmatched. But that’s always been the road that labor has had to travel, through narrow passes and in enemy territory. When it wins, however, it greatly expands what’s considered politically possible for working people.