April 29, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld
Nanuet, N.Y. “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” That was the motto of Joseph Stratford, 1199 SEIU Political Organizer, who was given the honor of giving the invocation at the Workers Memorial Day Vigil in Rockland County, NY last night. The vigil, which was originally scheduled to take place on the steps of the Rockland County Court House in New City, took place instead at the picket line which had been set up by CWA members in front of the Verizon store in Nanuet.
Verizon store in Nanuet. Gil Heim, President of Local 363 IBEW, who also currently serves as President of the Rockland County Central Labor Council, explained the significance of the move. “We, in the IBEW stand with our brothers and sisters in the CWA” he said, “as do the Clarkstown teachers who are here today, who are without a contract for over a year. It is time to let the world
know that organized labor in Rockland County is not asleep in the corner somewhere. What you see today is a rebirth of solidarity, and what better way is there to honor our brothers and sisters who have died than to stand with those that need our help today.”
When questioned as to what is at stake for these striking workers, Local 1107 Business Agent, Doug Caprara came straight to the point. “It’s about people’s jobs,” he said. “Verizon wants to consolidate and close down call centers. That means that if a customer calls up for customer service, he’ll be talking to someone in Mexico or the Phillipines.” And for those American workers fortunate enough to keep their jobs, Verizon wants to transfer them to centers as much as 200 miles away. Doug continued, “they also want to contract out our line work to private contractors who are willing to work for less. On top of that, they want to cap off the number of years of service you can accrue for your pension and increase out of pocket medical costs for retirees.”
One might think that such austere measures taken by a corporation must be the result of plunging profits or absurdly overpaid and non- productive employees. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Currently, Verizon is averaging approximately $1.5 billion a month in profits. On the other hand, the highly trained and competent field technicians average a modest $70,000 a year for their efforts. If Verizon stockholders have reason to look askance at anyone, it would be CEO and chairman, Lowell C. McAdam who joined the company in 2000, and rakes in a hefty $18 million a year. His labor relations policies might call for scrutiny as well. For though
the strike was called on April 13th, the company has shown no interest in negotiating until today.
Despite the gravity of the situation, Doug was clearly pleased with the turnout at the vigil. His members proudly displayed their union colors, as did so many others from private and public sectors alike. John Wedvick, President of the Clarkstown Teachers Association whose organization has shown support since day one, pledged that they are committed to stay as long as it takes. He’s proud of the fact that his union, along with eight other teacher’s locals in Clarkstown sit down with the building trades every month at the Central Labor Council where they all strategize and support one another. He was joined by Elaine Apfelbaum, President of the Rockland
County CSEA, who said “we are in unity with our brothers and sisters at Verizon in their fight for a fair contract.”
Also in attendance was Mary Jane Bertram, Hudson Valley Regional Director of the Worforce Development Institute (WDI), an organization that has worked hard in the past few years to create meaningful work for people across New York State, and has helped so many businesses flourish and seen thousands of paychecks produced as a direct result of their efforts. “We support all of the American workforce, past and present,” she said. “This vigil is the perfect time to stand with those who work so hard to provide the services we all have come to rely upon.”
Rockland’s elected officials were in no short supply either. Apparently, at least in Rockland County, corporate greed is offensive to both sides of the aisle. Rockland Town Supervisors George Hoehman and Jim Monaghan, Councilman Frank Borelli, Councilwoman Stephanie Hauser and Deputy Majority Leader Aney Paul along with Westchester Assemblyman David Buchwald and Orange County Assemblyman, James Skoufis took their places and joined the picket line amongst nurses and laborers alike. Each of the elected told stories of mothers, fathers, uncles and grandparents that realized their potential, thanks to their unions. Each of them, out of earshot
of the others, used the phrase “backbone of our community” when describing the striking workers.
Despite the obvious energy that was in the air, the purpose of the commemoration was not lost, and neither was the solemnity. The crowd was silent with respect as the bells tolled the names of the seven workers who in the past year died year while trying to earn a living. The bagpipes of CWA Local 1120 member, Declan McGrath served as a somber reminder of how high the stakes are where worker health and safety is concerned.
Then, with respects fully paid, working men and women did what they have always done. They returned to the task at hand, and of course made the best of it, with Local 455 Teamster, Jerry Ebert strumming away on his guitar and belting out “Which Side Are You On?” the old miners’ song and theme music for Mother Jones herself. It was an appropriate number to play, as workers once again muster up a seemingly endless amount of strength and determination to go yet another round in a bloody match with corporate greed.