A battle of wills between the second largest wireline telephone company and the two largest telecom unions has taken an unusual and unfortunate turn into a racial issue. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) have attacked two members of Verizon’s board of directors – an African American and a Hispanic – and the businesses they run – while not launching similar attacks on any of Verizon’s White directors or the businesses they run.
The underlying labor dispute has nothing to do with race – instead it is the traditional stuff of union negotiations. Since last summer, Verizon and CWA have been negotiating over issues such as healthcare contributions, pension plans and work rules. In August 2011 45,000 of Verizon’s union wireline workers went on strike after failed attempts to reach an agreement on a new labor contract.
The strike was the first at Verizon in 11 years. After the union workers returned to work later that month, CWA and Verizon were still unable to come to terms of various issues, including sick time and pensions.
Now, almost a year later, things are heating up again. This time CWA has teamed with IBEW to “ask” two members of Verizon’s board of directors to assist them in securing a contract for Verizon workers.
What is surprising is that CWA and IBEW have targeted only minority members of the board, having only called out Clarence Otis, Chair and CEO of Darden Restaurants and an African American, and Puerto Rico’s Banco Popular Chair and CEO Richard Carrión, Chair and CEO of Puerto Rico’s Banco Popular.
The “ask” could not have been less likely to generate sympathy from the two Verizon directors. CWA and IBEW put out a press release in which they challenged the compensation Otis and Carrión receive as Verizon board members (compensation that is actually typical of what Fortune 500 company directors earn), and then issued a demand for what they call “fair” conduct from the two men. CWA then organized over 300 protests and rallies at Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters – restaurants owned by Mr. Otis’ Darden Restaurants, and at branches of Mr. Carrión’s Banco Popular. What’s not clear is what the directors’ compensation or the operations of restaurants and bank branches have to do Verizon workers’ pay and benefits.
CWA representatives state that rally leaders want Verizon to resolve contracts with its workers as the company demands “cuts in compensation from workers of at least $10,000 a year,” CWA said
“This is more of the same and nothing new,” said Verizon spokesman Rich Young. “Union rallies do nothing to advance bargaining. We believe the only way progress can be made is for both sides to engage in meaningful contract talks at the bargaining table. We are always ready and willing to engage. Union leadership needs to do the same.”
The CWA and IBEW tactics call to mind the long history of union insensitivity or at times outright antipathy to minority advancement. While CWA and IBEW no longer exclude minorities, their tactic of bullying high-achieving people of color in highly diverse companies is puzzling at best. Darden and Banco Popular are highly diverse at all levels, top to bottom, and Verizon’s board, with five people of color among eleven members, is the most diverse board of any Fortune 100 company. Verizon ranked 25th among Fortune 500 companies in DiversityInc.’s 2012 survey.
One of the first lessons learned by civil rights activists is to exercise care in choosing “what fights to pick.” Rosa Parks was hardly the first African American to be sent to the back of the bus in Montgomery, AL, but she was selected to be the trigger of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott because she was universally revered as a dignitary in the community. Likewise, unions should consider how it advances their goals to go out of their way to attack two men of color who are models of high achievement, community service and integrity.