Requiem For A Heavyweight, Telephone Labor Division
Twenty years ago this December, the large Dorchester, Massachusetts, clan of Jerry “Judgie” Leary was, like many other telephone worker families in the Northeast, not exactly flush with cash for Christmas presents.
Jerry and 60,000 other members of the Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Communications Workers (CWA) had just spent four grueling, impoverishing months on the picket line battling NYNEX, the regional telecom giant now known as Verizon.
Memories of that strike include first-time-ever visits to food banks, the loss of job-based medical benefits because NYNEX cut them off, and the dismissal, suspension, or arrest of hundreds of union activists in New York and New England. In Westchester County, New York, a CWA picket captain with several young children was hit by a car driven by a scab and died of brain injuries; in New Hampshire, an IBEW striker was killed in an industrial accident while trying to do an unfamiliar factory job to feed his family.
But during that long ordeal the local union that Jerry served for many years afterwards as vice president and business agent made many new friends. IBEW Local 2222 became well-known in the local labor movement and in political circles outside the predominantly Irish-American neighborhoods that once produced the bulk of Boston’s police, firefighters, telephone workers, and utility workers.
The issue in 1989 was health care cost-shifting. Because CWA and IBEW strikers parried the company’s proposed givebacks by demanding “health care for all,” they soon had Reverend Jesse Jackson at their side, plus striking coal miners and Eastern Airlines pilots. The NYNEX strike support effort in Boston became a “rainbow coalition” ranging from the National Organization for Women to Physicians for a National Health Program. In a rare role reversal for the 1980s, the strikers actually won and the company lost.
To this day, in recognition of the role that solidarity played in that victory, Local 2222 remains an active part of both the Boston Labor Council, where Jerry Leary was a longtime delegate, and the more diverse activist coalition known as Jobs with Justice.
PREMIUM HEALTH CARE
Thanks to their sacrifices 20 years ago and a willingness to fight in subsequent rounds of bargaining (which included a 14-day strike in 2000), Verizon workers in the Northeast still don’t make any premium contributions for their individual or family coverage. It’s an arrangement now enjoyed by only a fraction of the labor force. So, as part of their misbegotten “health care reform” scheme in Washington, D.C., some Senate Democrats and the Obama administration are now demonizing “Cadillac plans” like the one at Verizon and trying to slap a not-very-helpful excise tax on them. Click here for more on that controversy.)
Jerry Leary never owned a Cadillac but he did need good union-negotiated benefits when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer last spring. That unexpected blow to a seemingly hale and hearty NYNEX strike veteran didn’t stop him from being much involved in preparations for a big anti-layoff march in early October that brought nearly a thousand union members to the front door of Verizon’s headquarters and other protest targets in downtown Boston, like the Hyatt Hotel. But Jerry’s condition did lead to medical complications that imposed considerable financial and emotional strain on his wife, six children, and large extended family.
To show members’ appreciation for Jerry’s many years of service to the union and “his lifelong commitment to Dorchester and its various sports, civic, neighborhood, or religious organizations,” Local 2222 set up a fundraising website. Ace mobilization committee member Donna Bohan began making plans for a January 29 benefit party at Florian Hall, operated by Firefighters Local 718 and the site of numerous mass meetings during the 1989 walkout. Unfortunately, the fundraiser is now going to be held without the guest of honor. On December 11 Jerry Leary died at the age of 57.
In many unions, it’s not uncommon to toast, at great dues-payer expense, some member of the officialdom or shell out big bucks for the “times” held by cash-hungry politicians (as their fundraisers are called here in Boston). But just as Jerry was known, far and wide, for his selfless volunteering, the January 29 event for the Leary family is a typical expression of IBEW caring for those in need, regardless of rank or title in the union.
In the last few months alone, due to Donna’s tireless efforts, tens of thousands of dollars have been raised for one Local 2222 member left crippled after surgery and the family of another who died in a skiing accident. In myriad ways, large and small, the local is always extending a helping hand and leaving a lasting impression.
For example, Jerry’s close friend Myles Calvey, the always-in-motion business manager of Local 2222, attends as many wakes as a Catholic priest, where his warm presence is always appreciated by bereaved family members and friends. Local President Eddie “Fitzy” Fitzpatrick, another 1989 strike leader, is a legendary figure in 2222’s “employee assistance” program; his personal interventions have saved the lives, marriages, and phone company careers of countless workers caught in the grip of substance abuse. And, of course, a legion of other IBEW business agents and stewards, like recently retired mobilization coordinator Dave Reardon, have devoted thousands of hours to answering phone calls, filing grievances, and resolving problems related to the Verizon contract and its hard-won safety net of medical and pension benefits, disability coverage, and family and medical leave protections.
CROSSED BUCKET TRUCKS
All of the above and many more were at Jerry Leary’s funeral yesterday at St. Anne’s, the parish in Dorchester where he was born, raised, and lived his whole life. After Mass, a long line of cars headed down Neponset Avenue, past the Boston Firefighters honor guard and the Local 2222 union hall in Lower Mills where Myles, Jerry, Fitzy, Dave, Donna, and others have served the membership.
Our destination this time was Cedar Grove Cemetery, a mile or so down the road. How many people have ever been interred, there or anywhere, after passing under the raised and arched booms of two telephone company bucket trucks, with a union banner strung between the two?
I don’t know. But my guess is that Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, big company man that he is, won’t be laid to rest in similar fashion when his number is up. Ivan’s $20 million a year in salary, bonuses, and stock options will buy a different send-off. It will be far less reflective of real life at the phone company, like the biting cold at Jerry’s gravesite that was a familiar companion for those who spend every New England winter climbing poles or splicing cable underground.
In the face of the grotesque caricatures of trade unionism projected by Verizon and other firms today in their unrelenting campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act, it’s easy to forget (or never know) what being a rank-and-file member means in the culture of mutual aid and protection, solidarity and friendship, that exists in the best local unions.
As Chicago labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan noted years ago in his book Which Side Are You On?, that organizational connection doesn’t just provide better-than-average pay and benefits. For union activists, it makes you part of a distinct “counter-culture” that continues to contest—even if imperfectly—the dominance of competitive individualism. Big business (Verizon included) fears and hates this counter-culture, far more than any stereotypical working class Joe might have disliked the Woodstock generation 40 years ago.
Strong unions are deeply rooted in the workplace and community; simply by negotiating and enforcing contracts, they “interfere” with “management of the business.” Employers thus see them, as top Verizon managers have long viewed 2222, as a rival for “control of the company.” And that explains why Verizon has done so much to downsize, dislocate, and contain the workforce represented by this stalwart defender of “legacy contracts” and the job rights that come with them.
The collective ties that bind co-workers “on the property,” as they say at 2222, are allegiances forged over many years of helping each other out, in countless ways, on the job and off. They represent a standing rebuff to the demands for corporate loyalty and obedience from Seidenberg and his army of headquarters bean-counters.
To see the difference, in death as well as life, one needed to look no further than the huge crowd of mourners, many with IBEW Local 2222 stickers on their cars, accompanying Brother Jerry Leary to his final resting place yesterday. His son Patrick’s moving recollections from the altar of St. Anne’s about a life well-spent—about a father doing good for his family, his neighborhood and city, and his beloved community of Boston telephone workers—brought tears to the eyes of many. In the back of the church, filled with hundreds of people, were many “outside plant” technicians attending in their work clothes.
Until recently, Patrick was one of them, too. But now Jerry’s son is no longer on the Verizon payroll, a victim of layoffs this fall in New England. That job-cutting represents the latest threat to telephone labor as a union-organized entity in the Northeast, not the least because it deprives both IBEW and CWA of younger rank and filers able to fill the big shoes left behind by the likes of Jerry Leary.
As a CWA International Representative, Steve Early worked closely with IBEW and CWA members in New England on the 1989 NYNEX strike and many other contract campaigns. He is the author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home.