The Summer of our Discontent

ASSEMBLYMAN KEITH WRIGHT | 4/16/2013, 4:50 p.m.
Last week, on 125th Street, right across from my offices at the Harlem State Office...
The Wright man for the job

Last week, on 125th Street, right across from my offices at the Harlem State Office Building, a committed group of working men and women stood strong. They weren't selling gospel music CDs nor bootleg movies, not even sliced mango and pineapple. They were men and women employed by Verizon, fighting for their lives, their rights and their respect.

They were on strike because their highly profitable company sought to use the misguided anti-union sentiments pervading our country to accomplish the longstanding goals of corporations, some Republican elected officials and other groups more concerned with the profits of big business than problems faced by the blue-collar working class of America.

On a recent visit with these proud union members representing both the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, I saw dozens of mothers and fathers standing up to a conglomerate during a recession, a financially burdensome stand during the worst economy since the Great Depression. I took that as a statement of how big the opposition to collective bargaining has become and how this was not just another negotiation, but a definitive shift in labor relations within our country.

You see, Verizon is not Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had to deal with a $10 billion deficit and extracted concessions from the public employees unions. Verizon is not the auto industry, who eliminated jobs and benefits due to their own mismanagement and irrelevance. Verizon is a company making profits at record pace, who this year tripled their earnings, whose former CEO was paid $18 million last year. Many businesses may have legitimate concerns about workforce expenses, but Verizon is surely not one of them.

Then why, despite massive gains, did this giant multinational corporation demand huge concessions from their barely middle-class employees? Why did they want to freeze pensions for current workers, eliminate them for future workers, increase the cost of health insurance, eliminate job security and restrictions on outsourcing, reduce days off and end disability benefits? Verizon responded with some hyperbole about the recession, cost structures and competition, but the real answer was opportunistic greed.

Thankfully, the unions and Verizon reached a deal earlier this week, but the question remains, why did they pursue such a hard line stance against the workers who made this company what it is today? Perhaps they saw the union movement, after its public sector losses in Wisconsin and Ohio, as "on the ropes." Like any skilled competitor, they used their enemy's weakness to their own advantage.

Maybe some people in the Midwest drank the Kool-Aid and believed that unions are what ails our nation, but here in New York and especially on 125th Street, we know that these workers were on strike not just for themselves, but for all workers who have fought for the rights that these Verizon employees stood up for over these last few weeks.

As A. Philip Randolph put it best, "A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess." These Verizon employees were soldiers in the continued battle for these rights, and thanks to their steadfastness, we made sure that Verizon heard us loud and clear during this summer of our discontent.

Assemblyman Keith Wright represents Central and Western Harlem in the New York State Assembly and is chairman of both the State Assembly Labor Committee and New York County Democratic Party.