Pam, a DSA member in Brooklyn, started at Verizon (then Bell Atlantic) in 1999. She’s a splicer in the construction department, working in manholes, running fiber cables, and installing fiber terminals.
I first worked at two different worker centers organizing Latino immigrants, one in El Paso, my first real job out of college, then in New York. Those were good experiences but also frustrating. The power the workers were able to build was limited since they didn’t have a union.
I wanted to learn a skill, and I didn’t want to be in an office all the time. I liked the idea of being a technician, working with my hands and being outside. I knew the phone company was a good union job, a job people stuck with.
It’s really been a great job. I like the camaraderie with co-workers. I like the straightforwardness of the job: say you have a circuit you have to fix, it’s clear when it’s done and whether you did it right. I’ve been able to have a steady schedule and be there in the evenings and weekends with my family.
What I don’t like is that often I don’t know what my job for the day is going to be. Sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes it would be nice to have more decision-making power over your day.
So it’s important to get a job you think you’ll like because most of your time is spent doing the work. I was on the job for a lot of years when there wasn’t a lot of room to do much with the union. My local was very top-down when I started and there wasn’t a lot of space for new members.
I became a steward in 2001, and I learned a lot from other stewards, but I felt constrained by the fact that the officers didn’t want people to rock the boat. That led to an effort in 2008 where a few chief stewards ran for office. They lost that election, but it was a first step toward major changes in the local. I was part of a reform group that ran a full slate in the 2011 election and won.
Since I’ve been at the phone company, we’ve struck four times. The 2016 strike was the most significant experience I’ve had as a union activist. Strikes are hard and stressful, but they’re also a time when you feel your power as workers. Things open up.
Before that strike, people felt beaten down by the company’s surveillance and the excessive discipline. When the national union called the strike, there was a 180 degree turn — really overnight. Going on strike changed it from something happening to us to something we had the ability to change. It was amazing to see how members stepped up.
Every day we protested outside the hotels where the company was housing scabs. Before 7 a.m., you’d see hundreds of strikers in red shirts outside the hotel, raising a ruckus, and usually hotel management would come out and agree to kick out the scabs.
We followed the scabs all over the city, picketed wherever they were doing work, info-picketed all the Verizon Wireless stores. Other unions adopted stores to help bolster our picket lines, and we got tons of public support outside the stores. We held mass rallies and marches that helped keep the strike in the press.
This was during the New York Democratic primary race, and Bernie Sanders was in New York in the early days of the strike. Bernie honored strikers at a huge rally on the first day, and we held a mass march across the Brooklyn Bridge to the Sanders/Clinton debate. Bernie talked about Verizon as a prime example of corporate greed and how our issues affected everyone. The national attention Bernie brought helped raise the strike’s profile and keep morale high.
People at the phone company have a deep-seated sense that this is a good job because the union has made it a good job. There’s a reason most members stay for 30 years or more. There’s an awareness that the benefits and job security were won through strikes and all the on-the-job organizing that happens in between. There’s a collective sense that people before us fought and won those things and we have a responsibility to not let them slip away.
There was a lot of time over the years when things weren’t very exciting or it felt like we were really on the defensive. But the 2016 strike made me realize you have to stick it out, because you don’t know what’s coming and sometimes it’s not what you expected.
If someone asked my advice, I’d say it’s important to be somewhere for a long time. It’s important to find a job you’re going to enjoy day to day and that you can do for a long time.
Don’t go into it thinking you know more than the people who work there about how things should be run. Recognize that you have a lot to learn in terms of the job, the history of management-worker relations, the history of the union. You’re there to build relationships and to be a part of something bigger and to contribute what you can to that collective effort, but there will be lots of stumbling blocks along the way. Don’t be afraid to try and fail.