Metro

KEVIN CULLEN

On Verizon picket line, a demand for dignity

Verizon workers walked a picket line outside the company’s downtown Boston building on Thursday.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Verizon workers walked a picket line outside the company’s downtown Boston building on Thursday.

Christina Moylan is getting too old for this.

“Sixty years old, and I’m still on a picket line,” she was saying the other day, standing in front of the Verizon building in Bowdoin Square. “But, you know, I walked a picket line for 16 weeks in 1989. I can do this.”

Moylan is one of the 36,000 Verizon workers, from Massachusetts to Virginia, who went on strike Wednesday. She started 38 years ago as a telephone operator with the company that became Verizon. She rose through the company, bought a house in Melrose, raised a family.

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Hers has been one of those middle-class existences the politicians extol, existences that are going the way of the dodo.

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“We built this company,” she said, pointing to the workers who walked in an oval in front of the entrance to the old New England Telephone and Telegraph Company building. “When we started, we were a family. Now? Now we’re just a number.”

The numbers at Verizon are quite good, actually. The telecommunications giant has pulled down $39 billion in profits over the last three years.

But those profits are flowing up, to the bigshots, not down, to the worker bees.

Lowell McAdam, the Verizon CEO, somehow manages to survive on $18 million a year. Much of that compensation package is in stock shares, which gives McAdam a greater incentive, as if he needs it, to keep Verizon’s stock price high and labor costs low. The top five executives at Verizon pull in a total of more than $47 million a year.

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Verizon says it pays its average union worker $130,000 in wages and benefits. Which sounds pretty good until you realize the company wants to replace that so-called average worker with someone they can pay a lot less and with fewer benefits.

The strike began the day after Verizon announced it would bring its high-speed fiber-optic FiOS Internet and TV service to Boston. The very people who would install that system are now walking picket lines.

Matt Lyons, 29 years on the job, walked up from the Local 2222 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers picket line on Franklin Street to Bowdoin Square the other day. He says it’s galling to see executive pay rise so disproportionately. He says it’s unconscionable for a highly profitable company to ship overseas the kind of jobs that long sustained America’s middle class.

“My grandmother worked for what became this company. She was a telephone operator for 50 years,” he said. “She was able to send my dad to BC High, then to Boston College. That’s what made the middle class. That was the system, and it worked. And now that system is being taken away from us. And for what? So rich people can get richer? And working people can get screwed?”

Boston 4/13/16 -- Strikers signs against Verizon in downtown Boston outside the the companies headquarters ( David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Signs carried by the picketers were propped up against an exterior wall at the Verizon building.

The strike that began Wednesday is the biggest one in the country since 43,000 Verizon workers walked off the job in 2011. But in those five years, some 5,000 Verizon jobs, mostly in customer service, have sailed off to the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and the Philippines.

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The company wants to ship more jobs overseas, and that, along with union workers being expected to shoulder more health care costs, is a main sticking point in this dispute.

‘When we started, we were a family. Now? Now we’re just a number.’

Christina Moylan, Verizon worker who began at the company when it was New England Telephone 

For many walking the picket lines, this is not about a union contract so much as a social compact, the idea that if you work for a company that does well, everybody gets to share in the bounty equitably. This is about fairness, about maintaining not just jobs but dignity.

One of the things that drives the union strikers especially crazy is the company’s desire to put more technicians on the road, like journeymen, for weeks or months at a time, more than 80 miles from their homes.

The company says it needs that flexibility to be more efficient. But what does that do to somebody’s family life? From the worker’s perspective, the strategy seems clear: make the work-life balance so lousy that the worker quits. Then hire nonunion workers for less money and fewer benefits.

“A lot of this is about basic decency,” Lyons said.

What’s unfolding on the picket lines in Bowdoin Square and beyond is playing out across this country, where millions lie awake at night, staring at a dark ceiling, wondering if it will cave in. This is the national debate we should be having. There has to be a better balance between taking care of workers and taking care of shareholders.

While the politicians dither, lying to themselves and the rest of us about what they can or will do for American workers, Tim Sullivan walked a picket line in downtown Boston.

Sullivan grew up in Lawrence. He is 37, been with Verizon for 20 years, and feels so strongly about what he’s doing that he brought his 3-year-old son Aidan and 2-year-old daughter Kennedy to the picket line. Aidan ate some Dunkin’ Munchkins while his dad picketed.

“My wife used to work here, too,” Sullivan said. “She quit to stay home and take care of the kids.”

Tim Sullivan and his wife grew up believing and buying into the whole package, the American Dream, the stable middle class. All that stability is now so terribly shaky. “There’s no alternative,” he said. “You’ve got to take a stand.”

The sun was still high in the sky Thursday afternoon and the Verizon workers were still circling in front of the old telephone company building when a distant noise began to drift down Beacon Hill. Some guy with a bullhorn was chanting, and the crowd, hundreds and hundreds of fast food and other service industry workers demanding a $15-an-hour wage, was chanting with him.

The demonstrators, complete with a police escort, walked down Bowdoin Street and turned right onto Cambridge Street.

Tim Sullivan picked up his picket sign and walked across Cambridge Street toward the marchers, blending in with them, a sea of humanity, moving forward, slowly but inexorably, looking to obtain, or to preserve, a way of life for which they shouldn’t have to beg.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.