For seven years, Jazmin Warthen-Sypher has worked at a Verizon retail store in Brooklyn, New York, one of the few corporate-operated stores in the United States that has union representation, through Communication Workers of America, or CWA.
Since the union first formed in 2014, Warthen-Sypher and other Verizon employees have struggled against Verizon’s union-busting tactics, including a forced decertification vote with the National Labor Relations Board last month.
“Decertification was a part of the Verizon’s plan to deter and scare us [into believing] that the union is something that can be taken away in the blink of an eye,” Warthen-Sypher told me. “They were not successful, our voices were heard and we recently won the vote.”
Warthen-Sypher helped form the union four years ago, over alleged mistreatment from upper management. “We noticed the company was requiring us to work harder while taking away incentives we were receiving when we started, despite the profits we helped them achieve.”
The vote to disband the union was pushed by Verizon in 2016 during strikes over a new labor contract, two years after the union was first organized.
In that strike, retail store employees joined with 40,000 other Verizon workers represented by unions, the majority of whom work in the Verizon’s wireline business, which includes landlines, internet, and video services. The decertification vote was delayed until August 2018 as an unfair labor practice charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board against Verizon completed arbitration processes.
“They were trying to divide us, creating programs and making false promises to some employees,” said Monique Rochelle, an employee at one of the six Brooklyn Verizon Wireless stores who has been involved with the union since it first organized in 2014. “One of the human resources employees at Verizon was going around with the district manager at the time to talk with employees about the vote. She was giving a lot of false information about the union.”
“They were trying to divide us, creating programs and making false promises.”
According to Rochelle, the false information included mischaracterizing how the union helps workers and claiming a helpline for workers run by Verizon provided the same services as the union. She provided emails from the human resources employee and documents distributed by Verizon to managers on talking points for undermining union organizers.
“Why is the company really opposed to the CWA? It’s simple. You deserve better,” wrote Verizon’s Labor Relations Director Brett Ulrich in an email to Verizon Wireless employees preceding the decertification vote.
Verizon is among the most brazenly anti-union companies in the wireless industry. Shortly after a Verizon retail store in Everett, Massachusetts voted to form a union in 2014, Verizon closed the store down. The majority of Verizon wireless employees continue to have no protections from the exploitative trends rampant in the wireless industry.
Inspired by mass layoffs and union-busting efforts, more than fifty Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T workers from around the country met the weekend of September 15 in Columbus, Ohio.
“In all of the wireless companies there is a trend to turn good jobs into bad jobs. There is more job insecurity than ever, especially at Verizon and T-Mobile,” said Tim Dubnau, a CWA union organizer who helped set up the conference. “The trends are a reduction in commission checks, closing call centers, closing corporate stores and replacing them with authorized independent retailers, removing job positions and laying off people by doing so.”
Verizon has led the wireless industry in shifting its corporate stores to authorized dealer networks where workers are often paid less.
Over the last several years, Verizon has led the wireless industry in shifting its corporate stores to authorized dealer networks where workers are often paid less, provided less benefits while functioning as Verizon employees.
According to data provided to The Progressive by the Communication Workers of America, 77 percent of Verizon’s retail stores are operated by independent vendors, compared to 69 percent for Sprint, 60 percent at AT&T, and 53 percent at T-Mobile.
“We came together this weekend to talk about what has been successful so far to bring the entire wireless industry under one union and to be able to build on the momentum we already have going,” said Carissa Moore, an AT&T call center employee in Bothell, Washington, who attended the conference. “We wanted to build a cohesive list of expectations we felt could be met by our employers.”
Authorized dealer stores have fewer employees—about six per store compared to fifteen per corporate store at Verizon, according to the CWA. As a result, this shift from corporate retail stores to authorized dealers has caused thousands of workers to lose their jobs, often with no offer of employment elsewhere at Verizon.
“We estimate that 3,315 jobs were eliminated with the 221 corporate run stores the company has closed since 2013,” said Nell Geiser, assistant director of research at the CWA.
Eliminating job positions is another common source of mass layoffs in the wireless industry. For example, in October 2016 Verizon announced it was combining two job titles, “experience specialist” and “operations specialist” into one single role as a retail support specialist. “We don’t know exactly how many jobs were eliminated in that round of cuts, but likely several thousand,” Geiser said.
Meanwhile, employees at several Verizon stores are stepping up against Verizon to form unions.
In Hazleton, Pennsylvania, Verizon Wireless retail workers won an election in July to form a union and have now joined the six Brooklyn stores under union contract. Nearby, workers in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, are in the process of trying to get their own vote to unionize.
“We’re not looking to do this to cause an upset. It’s about making sure we receive the same respect regardless of whoever is in charge and that we abide by all the same rules,” said Darryll Gibbons, an employee who helped organize the union at the Wilkes-Barre store. “I feel like having a union representative in our corner who knows the in and outs can help us make a little more noise when something isn’t right. Right now, we’re at the complete mercy in hoping whoever at the company is supposed to help us wants to help and likes us.”
Verizon did not respond to multiple requests for comment. After the union was formed in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, a Verizon spokesperson told a local media outlet, “we continue to believe that our employees do not need union representation to receive industry-leading compensation and benefits and a great work environment.”