By Larry Cohen, President
Communications Workers of America
The 45,000 CWA and IBEW members are hopeful that Monday night’s return to work at Verizon after a two-week strike will bring meaningful collective bargaining and a good result for all concerned. For us, the strike was about real collective bargaining rights as much as about preserving the standard of living for our families.
The unity of our members and the widespread public support for workers really speak to the general state of working families in the US. This includes stagnating real wages in recent years, the collapse of employer based health care, declining retirement security and the export of good jobs to low-wage contractors and offshore. The root cause of much of this decline is the collapse of bargaining rights in the US in both the public and private sectors.
For our members and their union, as well as Verizon management, at least on the surface, there is no larger story. The strike was about this contract and the state of bargaining at this company. Verizon has begun a management transition, and we are hopeful that for lots of reasons this is an opportunity for change. But the unity of our members and the popular support of their cause, to a large extent, reflects how normal cuts have become and how unusual resistance on this scale is in the United States of the 21st century.
For working women and men, and retirees in the US, there is little structural economic support. We can pretend otherwise, but look at nearly every other industrial democracy, where high-level and cost-effective health care is the norm; retirement security means much higher income replacement; public policy supports retaining jobs in key industries; and, most important, there is widespread public and political support for collective bargaining.
We are in an economic free fall. Pretending that we are consumers and not working Americans first will not fix it. Tax cuts will not fix it. Attacks on working Americans and their rights like those led by Republicans in the House of Representatives and extremist governors at every opportunity will make the landing even harder.
We need to restore workers’ rights in a meaningful way so that we all can negotiate and engage our employers in a meaningful way. Human resource leaders at major US-based employers should be ashamed of looking to cut costs at every turn, then collaborating with multibillion-dollar political machines to fight every political attempt to restore balance through public policy. For example, nearly without exception, US management opposed federal legislation mandating that all employers pay for quality care. Even those employers like Verizon that provide decent health care end up subsidizing employers that are health care deadbeats by ensuring spouses who work for those companies.
Collective bargaining can make a difference. Look back to 1938, when the United States still was gripped by the last of the recessions that made up the Great Depression. Well known economist John Maynard Keynes wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, stating that the jobs program and financial regulation were important, but “I regard the expansion of collective bargaining as essential.”
Keynes was not particularly a union supporter, but he understood, as did economists for decades to come, that collective bargaining is a critical engine to fire up the demand curve and enable workers to improve their conditions in discussion with management, thus, improving the economy. We will never have an economic recovery in this country if, instead, very profitable employers automatically cut wages, cut benefits and ship more good jobs overseas because their colleagues at other firms are all doing it. That remains a race to the bottom.
We can’t have a recovery based on a “dollar store” economy. Unless workers can truly use bargaining rights to better their conditions, that’s exactly where we’re headed. The strike at Verizon demonstrates the severity of the problem, but it will take a majority-based political movement to fix it.
Photo by Andrew Bump
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