Rank and File: Bianca C. on CWA

What is your occupation? (You don’t need to specify the company if you prefer not to.)

I was a retail sales representative for Verizon Wireless. I was fired for union organizing. Now I work for Labor Notes, where I help rank and file union members organize more militantly.

What union are you a member of?

CWA Local 1109.

How long have you been a member? How would you characterize your involvement with the union?

In 2014 my coworkers and I organized the first union for employees at wireless stores, and decided to join the CWA, which represents workers in Verizon’s landline division and at other companies. My coworkers elected me to serve on the bargaining team. We finally ratified a contract in summer of 2016 after a 49-day strike.

What do you feel are the major issues your union is focused on right now?

The major issues our union has focused on are new organizing efforts in other Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile retail stores and call centers. We’ve also lobbied for federal call center legislation that would stop the government from providing loans and grants to companies that ship jobs overseas. Many companies move their call centers to places like the Philippines, where they make empty promises and exploit workers.

What is/has been the attitude of your employer toward the union?

Verizon Wireless was fiercely anti-union. In the months leading up to our election, they threatened to deport some people, promoted others, spied on people and sent in senior managers to intimidate union supporters. They also gave free lunch to workers almost every day as a cheap attempt at bribery. They fired me because I was viewed as the leader.

Discuss the ways your union has advocated for the interests of its members.

CWA has initiated new organizing by reaching out to workers through paid targeted Facebook ads and followed up leads consistently for the past four years. It spearheaded federal call center legislation to protect jobs and used its political leverage to fight to get my job back and shed light on the horrible practices Verizon Wireless uses against its own employees.

Are there issues you feel your union should organize around that are not currently being addressed?

I feel that members should have more control over organizing drives. I also think that the union should be creative helping workers fight around issues like scheduling and the commission structure, which are not addressed in the contract. Verizon Wireless workers were paid well by industry standards and had better benefits than many workers. Our issues were stability, job security, dignity, and fairness. Those things are a lot harder to address in a contract, and it takes a tremendous amount of organizing and relationship building to convince fellow workers that it’s worth joining and sticking with the union to get them. We had to strike for 49 days to get a contract that included grievance and arbitrations but didn’t include raises or benefit improvements and didn’t address the issues that members cared about most.

Anything else you’d like to add?

For a non-union worker trying to organize, the fight is long and ugly. Another store in Massachusetts followed in our footsteps. They bargained for a contract and even went on strike. Three months after the strike, Verizon Wireless announced that it would be closing their store, and offered them non-union positions at other stores in the area or severance packages. Nothing in the contract prevented the company from closing the store, and the union barely fought against it.  

In the New York stores I organized, some members were frightened that their first union experience was a long strike. Some of thems crossed the picket lines, which those of us walking and organizing the lines saw as a betrayal. But we continued to do outreach, even after some of the scabs filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to decertify the union.

In July 2018, the DC Court of Appeals decided that I had been legally fired, which ended my case and triggered a decertification election. There was crazy tension between the scabs and the workers who honored the strike, but we had to soften the traditional union line on scabs in order to win the decertification vote. In the end, the workers voted by an overwhelming margin to stick with the union. They have now just voted to extend their contract and receive a one-time $900 signing bonus.

Another store in Hazleton, PA has just voted to join the CWA. It won a contract without  going on strike. The union is building power by increasing membership at CWA, despite the company’s aggressive anti-union practices.