Union members stood with elected officials in Bensonhurst on Thursday, September 10 to shame Verizon Wireless not only for its reluctance to negotiate contracts but also for allegedly threatening to fire a union leader for standing up for hers – and a colleague’s – rights.
According to Communications Workers of America (CWA) officials, union leader Bianca Cunningham – a Verizon Wireless employee and member of CWA Local 1109 – had been told by management at the end of August that they intended to fire her as of September 9, and that she would, in the meantime, be placed on administrative leave. While she was never fired, she has remained on administrative leave in what union reps called at the rally an “attempt to silence and terrify Brooklyn workers.”
According to President of Local 1109 Tony Spina, Cunningham’s job was threatened after she took a phone-call from another union member – an employee at the Bensonhurst Verizon Wireless, 2141 86th Street – who was “hysterical crying” and “afraid of [her] manager.”
“That day, I felt like I was doing the right thing by helping my sister,” said Cunningham, floored by the support shown at the rally, “but now I know that this company bullying me is just proof of why we need a union at Verizon Wireless.”
“All Bianca did was try to help her and give her advice and guidance,” said Spina, calling the young woman’s story one of the saddest he’s heard in years, “and they [threatened to] terminate her.”
Still, Spina said, despite the over 39,000 Verizon Wireless employees working without contracts, negotiating with the company has been “like talking to a brick wall” – a sentiment echoed by Dennis Trainor, vice president of CWA District One.
“Verizon makes more than a billion dollars a month in profit,” said Trainor, who oversees and supports more than 300 local unions in the tri-state area and beyond, “but instead of settling a fair contract for retail workers, who make about 300 times less than the company’s CEO, management tries to intimidate its workers by threatening to fire their leader for standing up for her rights.”
Union workers and supporters were joined by elected officials like Assemblymembers Peter Abbate and William Colton, Councilmember Mark Treyger and Public Advocate Letitia James, all of whom had a stern message for Verizon Wireless.
“We’re here tonight not only for Bianca but we’re here because this is New York,” said Abbate, “and Verizon needs to understand that this is a union city – and that they cannot get away with this.”
“Treating workers with respect and dignity is good for business and it is good for the community,” said Treyger, calling the way Cunningham was treated un-American and promising to keep Verizon’s feet to the fire. “What happened to Bianca can happen again and again to others so our message here today is simple: let her in.”
When contacted for comment, a Verizon Wireless spokesperson told this paper that the company is not targeting Cunningham.
“The leadership of the Communications Workers of America is flat-out wrong,” said Verizon rep John Bonomo. “The company is not targeting Bianca Cunningham or any other employee for their union activities. This employee’s conduct is subject to the same standard as all employees at Verizon Wireless.”
Still, James urged, that “this campaign is not just a one-time event.”
“Any struggle takes a while,” she said, “and that’s why we’ve got to be strong and we’ve got to make sure we’re committed to [negotiating contracts] and bringing Bianca back to her job.”