For Jazmin Warthen-Sypher, a seven-year employee at Verizon Wireless in Brooklyn, going on strike in April of 2016 was “liberating.”
“I’ve never seen or experienced so much power, so much union power, in my life,” she explained. Part of the first group of Verizon Wireless workers to form a union when they voted in the Communications Workers of America (CWA) in May of 2014, Warthen-Sypher was then part of the massive—and successful—2016 strike that drew national attention, pulled presidential candidates to picket lines, won raises, job creation, and pension stability for the workers, and perhaps most significantly, saw picketing at Wireless retail locations for the first time. The Wireless workers had organized to challenge what they saw as favoritism, arbitrary promotions and discipline, and to get some say over their wages and scheduling.
But their fight didn’t stop with the conclusion of the six-and-a-half-week strike nor the ratification of their first union contract. In late April 2016 a decertification petition was filed, which threatened the continued existence of the union. The vote was delayed for nearly two years as an unfair labor practice complaint worked its way through the National Labor Relations Board process, but on August 23 workers voted to keep the union. The result is an important victory for the Brooklyn workers and the union, which has used its success in the borough as a bulwark from which to branch out to organize more wireless workers, even beyond Verizon. It is, as CWA District 1 organizing director Tim Dubnau put it, a ripple from the storm that was 2016, but a ripple that has the potential to spread quite far.
Warthen-Sypher and Monique Rochelle, another Brooklyn wireless worker, felt the significance of the strike from its beginning. “It was something that we understood would go nationwide and we just went with it. We knew this was the first of many things we would be able to accomplish with the union,” Warthen-Sypher said. Rochelle, whose parents worked for Verizon on the landline side and were members of the union while she was growing up, said that the support and solidarity of the landline workers—many of whom had been through prior strikes—made her feel “to this day that it’s a family. We all have each other’s backs.”
The 2016 strike was a pivot point for CWA’s efforts to organize Verizon Wireless retail stores, allowing the union to build off the improbable momentum of having organized every wireless store in Brooklyn. But it also catalyzed the decertification, which was filed during the strike. “It was like the Empire striking back,” Dubnau said.
To Warthen-Sypher, it seems that the company has never stopped fighting their union. “It slowed down a bit once the union was voted in, but it was always in the back of their minds.” Over four years, she watched Verizon roll out anti-union tactics that CWA had warned them about. “Watching that playbook unfold before our eyes, it basically confirmed why we needed the union there for us.”
With the decertification hanging over the workers’ heads, they were constantly afraid that their four-year struggle would be wiped away, said Colin Hull, a ten-year Verizon employee who recently received a settlement for his termination from the company. His initial interest in the union was piqued by his frustration with the company, particularly the way that promotions were given out. As he became more involved he talked to family members who were in unions, and began to read more about labor history. What he learned helped inspire him to fight. Hull was on the union’s bargaining team for the first contract negotiation, and was disheartened by the company’s refusal to bargain over their proposals, only to then turn around and implement those same proposals later.
The first contract brought improvements for the workers—in their raises, but also in the way management treated them. Warthen-Sypher’s base pay has gone up over $5 in the past two years, and Rochelle recalled a disciplinary hearing where for the first time she had a union representative standing with her. “If he wasn’t there, I would have been terminated,” she said. When the second contract was ratified this year on August 10, just before the decertification vote, they won more good changes, from a $900 signing bonus per full-time worker upon ratification of the contract to quarterly meetings between the company and the union to talk about scheduling and other issues.
But Hull and Rochelle say the company has continued to try to divide the workforce. Verizon implemented programs that seemed to single out workers arbitrarily for special treatment, promised promotions that never materialized, and sent letters (provided to Dissent by CWA) that denied the company would take away benefits won by the union. Leading up to the decertification vote, the company hired new workers—according to Dubnau, the campaign began with sixty-four workers in Brooklyn and then that number fell to thirty-five before rising back above forty just recently. About half of that number is new workers.
The new workers, Warthen-Sypher said, got the same hard sell that the original organizing committee had faced—the same anti-union videos, the same claims that CWA was just out to pocket their dues. “We had to stay tight as a unit and have a lot of meetings and a lot of dinners and have union reps come out and talk to these newer members.”
“We won because people were brave,” Hull said. Workers stood up and challenged the company’s arguments, verbally and via email; they wrote replies to the company’s letters and fliers, defending the union’s record and contending that the union, not the company, would stand up for them.
When they won, Warthen-Sypher said, “It was a ton of bricks lifted off of our backs, our shoulders, our chests. It put everything into perspective as to why we’ve been fighting so hard. We started four years ago, they tried to take us down then, they tried to take us down now, we won’t sleep, we’re smarter than them, they underestimated us.”
A Verizon spokesperson told Dissent, “This result is very disappointing both for us and for many of the employees in Brooklyn who waited a long time to attempt to vote out the CWA. These elections are always very difficult and unfortunately many employees were not able to see past the scare tactics, fear and uncertainty engaged by the union. Once the election is certified, the employees in Brooklyn will continue to be covered by the contract that was just extended into August of 2023.”
The Brooklyn win solidifies CWA’s position in the wireless industry. Now the union has been voted in twice, it eliminates one of Verizon’s key talking points—according to Dubnau and Hull, the company was telling workers around the country that the Brooklyn workers were regretting their choice to go union. This victory has shaken up the company’s ability to control the workforce, and to keep the wireless side—its biggest profit generator—union-free.
Asked why she thought Verizon fought so hard to keep the union out of Wireless when it’s been bargaining with CWA on the landline side for years, Rochelle said, “They want full control. I feel like their main focus is they just want to pay the employees whatever they want to pay them, benefits, scheduling, whatever. The company, any company, whether it’s Verizon or any big company, they’re going to fight to make sure they have full utter control.”
For retail workers to fight this fiercely for their union flies in the face of a lot of conventional wisdom about union organizing. Retail workers are often written off as unorganizable, as apathetic, as unskilled and likely to just leave a job rather than to try to improve it. But the Brooklyn workers were very aware of how much Verizon depends on the revenue they bring in, and many of them had spent years at the company, building a career and starting a family on their salaries and commission. Retail, Hull suggested, is where unions are most needed now, where workers are still mostly at-will employees, able to be fired or disciplined for any reason, their schedules shuffled at a moment’s notice.
And those retail jobs, Dubnau said, have been getting worse. Verizon has been closing stores and replacing them with “authorized dealers,” which sell Verizon products and services but are operated by a contractor, who often pays workers less. The company has laid off call center workers, replacing them with home-based workers, and eliminated positions within its stores, resulting in more layoffs.
In that time, the union has expanded its wireless organizing efforts. About three weeks before the decertification vote, CWA won another election in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. The big argument Verizon made in that election was that the Brooklyn workers wanted to decertify. But as Dubnau noted, “They can’t say that anymore.”
Around the country, the union has been able to win victories on the shop floor by, as Dubnau put it, “acting like a union.” Non-union Texas call center workers challenged late payments with stickers, inspired by a Rihanna song, that said “Pay Me What You Owe Me,” and prompted quick reaction from the company. Verizon brought in the anti-union specialists, but also indeed paid the workers what they were owed. Now workers have heard of CWA and know to call the union when they’re having problems.
Perhaps key to the recent successes is the fact that the retail stores tend to be staffed by young people whose generation has taken repeated hits—economic crisis, recession, massive student debt, spiking housing prices—and has responded with action. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and other left groups supported the Verizon strike in 2016; one of the former Brooklyn wireless workers, Bianca Cunningham, is a prominent DSA activist.
“Young workers are pricking up their ears more in hearing the union message, they know that their generation is screwed and this is a vehicle for them to fight back,” Dubnau said. Many of the young men and women of color in Brooklyn, like Rochelle, come from union households and have a level of militancy to match any grizzled, stereotypical landline union member. “The labor movement needs to recognize that,” Dubnau said. “People say that retail workers are apathetic, the potential is there for them to be fierce union warriors.”
And these union members too see the union as something they can leave to their family. Hull, who has a small daughter with Rochelle, said that part of the reason he wanted to organize was to build a foundation that could benefit his children, as well as the more immediate advantages to his friends and coworkers.
But most importantly, Warthen-Sypher said, they understood that their little union in Brooklyn could help kick off more organizing around the country. “They knew that it would start a wave, a wave that would be unstoppable once we actually started the process and met with different representatives from different companies and people across the nation. Everybody is affected by this, it’s not just us. I think that’s one of the things that kept us strong. We realized how big this is and how we needed to stay together.”
Sarah Jaffe is an editorial board member at Dissent, co-host of its Belabored podcast, and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (Nation Books, 2016).