Verizon Sends in Union Busters Against Washington Workers

Verizon workers seeking to unionize in Washington state say the company just brought in executives to intimidate them.

Striking Verizon Wireless workers and members of the Communications Workers of America union march outside of a Verizon Wireless store in Washington. (Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

Verizon retail workers in the Pacific Northwest say the company is pulling out all the stops to crush their efforts to form a union. In interviews, they said the company has been flying in executives and consultants as part of an intimidation campaign.

Meanwhile, employees were just banned from discussing unions on a private online bulletin board — all as Verizon has been funding a right-wing advocacy group spearheading the campaign to block worker rights’ legislation in Congress.

Last week, workers at Verizon retail stores in the cities of Everett and Lynnwood in Washington sent a letter to CEO Hans Vestberg requesting that the telecom giant voluntarily recognize their union.

“Our union will ensure a future where workers and management succeed together in providing the best possible products and services for our customers,” they wrote.

Their list of demands included improved pay and staffing levels, as well as a better work-life balance — issues that have gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic as the company has struggled to fill jobs. The workers say their stores have now been seriously short-staffed for two years, and they’re not being compensated to make up for it. One employee said he’s making less money than when he joined the company nearly a decade ago.

According to several workers, Verizon did not respond to the voluntary recognition request. Instead, said the employees, the company immediately sent senior executives and labor relations managers to their retail stores and other nearby locations to intimidate them, and has also been supplying store managers with anti-union talking points.

The company’s anti-union pressure campaign is being felt far and wide: on Tuesday, a private Reddit group for Verizon employees announced it was banning any discussion of unions in order to protect employees.

“We know that this company takes union conversations very seriously and monitors various outlets for unrest,” a moderator wrote. “We want to protect ourselves and each of you from this scrutiny.”

Verizon did not respond to a request for comment.

The company told shareholders in its most recent federal financial filing that “Verizon respects our employees’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining in compliance with applicable law, including the right to join or not join labor unions.”

At the same time, the company recently funneled between $50,000 and $99,000 to Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington group led by conservative activist Grover Norquist that has been pressing lawmakers to block Democratic legislation that would strengthen workers’ right to organize. Verizon has donated to Norquist’s group in previous years, as well.

“They Immediately Flew in Union Busters”

Verizon, headquartered in New York, is the world’s second-largest telecom company. Last year, the company recorded $4.7 billion in profits. Vestberg, Verizon’s CEO, made more than $19 million in 2020, which is 112 times the average Verizon worker.

While the company’s legacy wireline operations are unionized, only a handful of the company’s retail locations are unionized — namely, its stores in Brooklyn.

On March 8, workers at Verizon stores in Lynnwood and Everett announced their intent to unionize with Communications Workers of America (CWA).

“We are filing an election petition with the National Labor Relations Board but we will withdraw the petition should you agree to voluntarily recognize our union before the close of business on Friday,” they wrote in a letter to Vestberg.

Austin Hitch, a Verizon sales representative who’s helped organize the Lynnwood and Everett Verizon stores, said the company did not respond to the letter but made its position clear. “There was no reply to our email — except for they immediately flew in union busters, so I know they got the email,” he said.

Hitch said a Verizon labor relations manager arrived at his store one day after workers went public with their unionization effort, and appeared to be on a fact-finding mission. Then, said Hitch, the company sent in a senior retail executive to “intimidate my coworkers and try to tell them how this union is going to be terrible for them.”

The Washington state workers weren’t exactly surprised by the company’s reaction: CWA officials informed them in advance that Verizon has a team of union busters ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

Zac, a Verizon worker at another Washington retail store who requested anonymity, said a company human resources executive showed up to talk to employees there, too. Since then, he said, his store manager has started reciting “provably false” talking points about how forming a union would hurt workers financially.

“Placing Union Discussion on a Banned Topic List”

The workers believe their union push has prompted a broader crackdown, pointing to the decision by the moderators of a private Verizon employee subreddit to ban members from discussing unions.

“As of today, 3.15.2022, we are officially placing union discussion on a banned topic list,” a moderator wrote. “While we strive to make this an unauthorized safe place for employees to discuss important issues we must also recognize that the internet is a real place with real consequences.”

The moderator added: “We are not anti-union, we are anti-being fired or litigated against due to a conversation that could be better served in another outlet.”

To the Verizon workers organizing in Washington state, the ban on union talk bolstered their reasons for organizing.

“If you’re worried about getting unfairly targeted by management and fired for what you’re sending online, you know what you need?” said Zac. “A union.”

“Their Playbook Is the Same No Matter What”

Verizon has a history of union busting: In 2014, after Verizon employees voted to unionize a Massachusetts store, the company closed down the location. The approach is baked into the company culture, too. The company subjects retail employees to annual anti-union trainings, three workers said.

Union-busting tactics are disturbingly common. The Economic Policy Institute found in 2019 that employers are charged with breaking labor law in 41.5 percent of all union election campaigns — meaning that they illegally intimidate employees through terminations, disciplines, or threats.

In part due to aggressive intimidation of pro-labor workers, unions lost 241,000 members in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

President Joe Biden has pledged to use his power to protect workers from anti-union campaigns by federal contractors — a category that includes Verizon.

Biden’s 2020 campaign site pledged he would “ensure federal contracts only go to employers who sign neutrality agreements committing not to run anti-union campaigns.”

Last month, the Biden administration promised that it would “use longstanding authority to leverage the federal government’s purchasing and spending power to support workers who are organizing and pro-worker employers.”

One way to do that, the administration said, is to “ensure that federal contract dollars are not spent on anti-union campaigns and that the anti-union campaign activities by federal contractors are publicly disclosed.”

Verizon is a big federal contractor. Since Biden took office, the company has received $133 million in federal contract payments. The company also benefits from expansive government subsidies.

So far, the Biden administration has only taken limited actions to ensure some federal projects use union labor. The White House has done little to discourage federal contractors from leading aggressive union-busting campaigns — so Verizon has little to worry about as it pressures its Washington workers to accept the status quo.

“For me in my store, and I’ve heard from other people at stores that aren’t public yet, they’ve really ramped up the intimidation,” said Zac, the second Verizon worker. “I heard from someone else in Ohio that they gave him almost exactly the same speech. Their playbook is the same no matter what.”

Editor’s note: Matthew Cunningham-Cook was a researcher for Communications Workers of America from 2016 to 2018. You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Daily Poster, here.

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Andrew Perez is a writer and researcher living in Maine.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook has written for Labor Notes, the Public Employee Press, Al Jazeera America, and the Nation.

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