As of Wednesday, April 13th, around 36,000 Verizon FiOS wireline workers, unionized via the Communication Workers of American (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), have been on strike over a new contract with Verizon. This is the largest strike in the country since the last time these workers went on strike in 2011, which subsequently ended without a new contract--though with the unions believing that Verizon was willing to begin bargaining in good faith, according to a New York Times article.
Will this current strike have a similar outcome? It very well may if Verizon's stance thus far is any indication. According to Philip Arcara, a shop steward with CWA Local 1122, Verizon hasn't budged since their initial contract offering back in June of 2015. "They've put the same contract every time on the table," Arcara told us from the picket line. "And we've made concessions. We've even showed them a way to save millions of dollars on health care with the retirees, to put them into a Medicare plan." That's ten months of the unions offering concessions and Verizon offering none. That doesn't bode well for the strike--which the union must have been aware of.
Knowing that, why would they decide to strike? It may have been because they saw no other choice. According to Arcara, Verizon has been continually eating away at their livelihoods, reducing or eliminating pensions and matching 401ks, demanding that workers be willing to relocate at the drop of a hat, and other measures designed to push the union workers into dire straits:
"Contrary to what the media's saying and what everyone else is saying," Arcara told us, "we're not looking for more money. We're not looking to become rich off of this. We want to secure our jobs here for now and for future generations. Verizon hasn't hired, since 2001, anybody doing the job that we do. They're trying to ship our jobs over to the Philippines. They want to be able to move us from here, to uproot us to Virginia or anywhere else along their footprint."
The line always touted as to why Verizon has refused to do further FiOS build-outs is because their wireless venture is more profitable than their wireline FiOS (which makes their decision to roll-out FiOS in Boston quite curious). According to the New York Times, "The wireline [FiOS] business generated about 29 percent of Verizon’s revenue in 2015, but accounted for only 7 percent of its operating income." The reason for this, however, might offer some insights as to why the wireless side is more profitable--"the wireless business... is largely not unionized and... wages and benefits for rank-and-file workers are lower on average."
This puts the current strike and Verizon's recalcitrance into perspective; they have little incentive to bargain with their union members when they can continue to transition to the more profitable, non-unionized side of their business.
Some inroads have been made regarding unionization of Verizon Wireless employees: "We've got a Verizon Wireless in Brooklyn and one in Massachusetts that are now union [CWA]," says Arcara. "It's a long process, but we bargained that two or three contacts ago, and Verizon, as soon as we signed that contract, said no, we're not letting you do that. They've done everything they can to union-bash them, to try and keep the union out of there, [using] scare tactics."
"The girl in Brooklyn, Bianca Cunningham, she was the main activist who got Verizon Wireless there unionized. So the company, after they got the vote to unionize, ended up firing her for made-up charges because of the fact that she spearheaded that effort. We're in the process now of getting her job back, but that takes time, you know. They're trying to scare people - 'look, she did it and she got fired!' So other places won't do it because they see that she lost her job."
Without going further into details of why Verizon is shifting their focus, it should be noted that a fixation on wireless isn't going to be sufficient for communities in the long run. Wireless internet access is just not as reliable as a wired connection, and it does not have the same bandwidth potential as fiber, which is something that is continuing to increase in importance as bandwidth usage continues to rise without signs of slowing down. Given that more and more people are streaming video via their internet connections, and data usage continues to increase (though at a lesser rate), wired internet connections are guaranteed to continue to be an indispensable part of our lives. And this is something the Verizon wireline FiOS workers recognize--even on a personal level, as many of them don't have access to Verizon's private fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) offering themselves and have to deal with either Verizon's DSL or Time Warner Cable.
This lack of high speed wired access has played out on the business side in our region, as well. Just in 2015 there were high-tech businesses that wanted to move into the old American Axle plant on the intersection of Walden and Dick. But once they discovered there was no FiOS was available, they backed out. They certainly weren't going to be satisfied with some spotty wireless connection for their business. As we've noted before, there's a strong connection between economic growth and access to fiber-to-the-premise.
What this whole struggle for a contract highlights is the importance of local control over this essential information resource. Verizon has tunnel vision on their short term profits, even at the cost of giving up what could be a virtual monopoly on FTTH service across their whole footprint. The local CWA and IBEW workers recognize the importance of high-speed access for everyone, and of well-paying jobs for folks living in the community. "Verizon's still just picking and choosing where they want to put it. You can't have that. It's got to be something available to everybody. It can't just be who they want to have it," Arcara said.
Verizon FiOS is not our first choice for FTTH in Buffalo and Erie County. There are other options available to us (see our Routes Forward section) that would give many more benefits to the community. But if Verizon does decide to roll out FiOS in our county and city, we'll at least be happy that these workers will have well-paying, secure jobs for the foreseeable future, and Buffalo will be taking significant steps towards better broadband infrastructure.