Union Leaders, Democratic Lawmakers Address Verizon Strikers At State House Rally

John Reitmeyer | April 26, 2016 | Politics
Several speakers tie walkout to fight against income inequality, corporate greed

verizon strike
More than 30,000 unionized Verizon workers have been striking for nearly two weeks after an ongoing dispute over pay, healthcare, and other labor issues could not be resolved at the bargaining table.

With Verizon appearing well prepared to ride out the work stoppage thanks to recently trained non-union workers, success for the striking employees may depend on how much public pressure can be applied on the telecommunications giant to make a deal.

To that end, a rally was held outside the State House in Trenton yesterday to support the striking workers, with speaker after speaker casting the issue as being about more than just how much extra pay a landline repair technician will earn in the future or whether they’ll have to contribute more toward their health coverage. Several union leaders and Democratic officials instead framed the strike as fitting in with a broader national discussion about corporate greed and growing income inequality, echoing themes that have come up during this year’s presidential contest and an ongoing push for a $15 minimum wage.

But a spokesman for Verizon said in response later yesterday that the rally would ultimately have no bearing on the company’s bid to secure a fair contract with the workers at the bargaining table.

“These local roadshows, orchestrated by union leaders, do nothing to get our employees back to work,” company spokesman Richard Young said.

Before the strike began April 13, Verizon officials said they offered the unionized employees from Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers a deal that included a 6.5 percent wage increase, along with maintained healthcare benefits and matching of 401(k) retirement-plan contributions. They also criticized the unions for forgoing a federal mediation process that it said helped resolve a similar work stoppage in 2012.

But union officials have countered that the offer to the employees would force them to pay more for their healthcare and also open them up to more work assignments far from home. They’ve also raised concerns about retirement benefits and outsourcing.

During yesterday’s rally, several speakers spoke directly about billions in corporate earnings that have been enjoyed by Verizon in recent years, and millions in pay that’s gone to its chief executive officer and chairman, Lowell McAdam. They said it’s only fair that the workers now get to share in the company’s success.

“This fight is not just about pensions and healthcare,” said Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO organization. “This fight is about making a living in this country for you and your family.”

U.S. representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), Frank Pallone (D-Monmouth) and Donald Norcross (D-Camden) also struck similar tones when they spoke during the rally, which drew hundreds of workers, most of them dressed in red.

“This is really a microcosm of what’s going on in our entire country,” Norcross said.

In Congress, Norcross, a former union worker, is backing legislation to increase the federal minimum wage over time to $15 an hour. That would result in more than doubling the current $7.25 minimum wage.

The push for a higher minimum wage has also picked up steam recently in states like California and New York, and it’s been a rallying cry for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont as he continues to seek the Democratic nomination for president against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In New Jersey, Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) has been one of the loudest voices in Trenton in support of a $15 New Jersey minimum wage. If eventually enacted, the increase would hike the state’s current $8.38 minimum by nearly 80 percent.

Prieto has also burnished his pro-labor credentials over the past several weeks by refusing to post a bill authorizing a full state takeover of cash-strapped Atlantic City. Gov. Chris Christie, a second-term Republican, has sought the full takeover in part to rip up current collective-bargaining agreements to help reduce the municipal budget.

But Prieto said that would trample worker rights. He drew a loud ovation when he addressed the rally yesterday.

“The working class has to have a piece of the pie and that’s why we’re with you,” Prieto said. “We’re going to fight for workers’ rights until hell freezes over, and when hell freezes over we’re going get you ice skates so you can give them hell even more.”

Prieto was joined by several other state lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).

“Stay together,” Weinberg shouted to the crowd. “This corporate greed has to stop.”

Former Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy — who many expect is planning to run for the Democratic nomination for governor next year — also spoke during the rally. He said Verizon is missing out on what he termed as the nation’s shift toward “inclusive capitalism” by not treating its unionized workers fairly.

“That’s not inclusive capitalism,” said Murphy, a Middletown resident. “That’s not looking out for workers and their families.”

Though he was at the State House later yesterday, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) was not among those to speak during the rally due to a scheduling conflict. Sweeney, another likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate, instead issued a statement pledging his support for the striking workers.

So far, Verizon has been dealing with the strike by pressing into service more than 10,000 nonunion employees who received special training to make sure landline repairs stay on track and customer service calls are answered during the work stoppage. The strike has had only minimal impact on its wireless service.

In a recent corporate earnings report, McAdam announced the company’s earnings had increased by nearly 4 percent during the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same period last year. But the report also issued some caution about its second-quarter earnings outlook “given the status of labor contract negotiations.”

Young, the Verizon spokesman, said in a statement yesterday that the company remains committed to working out a deal with the unionized workers through negotiations.

“Our labor contracts are negotiated at bargaining tables in New York and Philadelphia, not on the steps of the State House in Trenton,” Young said. “We stand committed to reaching a fair contract that’s good for our employees, good for our customers and positions wireline unit on a path toward success.”