Cross-border workers in Tampa, Florida face health care and retirement cuts

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More than a thousand Frontier Communications workers in Tampa, Fla., will decide Thursday morning whether to allow a strike as International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 824 negotiates a new contract ahead of the current contract expires on Friday.

Frontier is a Connecticut-based telecommunications company that bought Verizon’s wireline assets in California, Texas and Florida in 2015 for $10.5 billion. The communications company operates fiber optic and copper networks and provides high-speed Internet and telephone services to 25 states. As of December 2019, it served around 4.1 million customers and employed 18,300 people.

On April 14, 2020, Frontier filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, a $10 billion debt largely owed to the acquisition of Verizon’s wireline services in 2015. Despite this, a judge in American bankruptcy approved at the end of May 37.7 million dollars in bonuses for the leaders of Frontier, a reward for services rendered to Wall Street.

Just prior to this award, in March 2020, Frontier announced plans to defer pension contributions totaling $153 million using the provisions of the CARES Act signed by former President Donald Trump. At that time, the WSWS noted that the pension was already nearly $1 billion underfunded. This compounded the retirement problems of Frontier workers, who also received a hit to their 401k plans that came in the form of Frontier shares.

The company has since been working with state governments to approve its bankruptcy reorganization plan that will eliminate $10 billion in debt, as well as $1 billion in interest payments. The most recent approval came in February with Connecticut, which requires Frontier to expand its fiber optic network and maintain its current number of technicians and customer service representatives in the state.

The main dispute with Tampa workers is over health care. During recent contract negotiations with IBEW 824, the company proposed to either double the percentage that active employees pay for health care or to eliminate employee health care coverage during retirement. Under previous contracts, the longer employees worked, the more their health care would be covered during retirement. Now, Frontier is aiming to do away with retiree health benefits altogether.

Tampa workers are angry and want to fight. One worker wrote on Facebook: ‘We stood there and supported Frontier through their bankruptcy not knowing how it was going to turn out, we tried our best not to run away, doing the best we could with what they would allow us to do, and they don’t care. We are ants for them. Another worker wrote, “I’ve been with the company for 28 years. We just want what we’ve worked for all these years.

But rather than appeal to its nearly 775,000 members and retirees to fight for the health care of its Tampa workers, the IBEW has decided to appeal to big business in the Tampa Bay area. They held an “information” picket on Super Bowl Sunday Feb. 7, in the words of local chairman Keith LaPlant “to send a clear message to Frontier and their business partners like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Raymond James Stadium. “.

On Facebook, LaPlant instructed attendees to only use signs made in the union hall that featured approved messages. He told members not to “mention an issue unrelated to our cause.” The banners featured messages such as “Shame on Frontier”, “Honk for Essential Workers” and “Enough is Enough”. The local also rented a plane to fly over the stadium during the Super Bowl with a banner stating, “Frontier Communications fails essential workers.”

This is an unserious approach to the fight for the health and lives of border workers aimed at muzzling and controlling the workers. On February 7, IBEW 824 staged a picket photograph in front of a giant banner that read “#GoBucs” (after the city’s football team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who played in the game) and also held another information picket on April 10 at Raymond James Stadium when it hosted WrestleMania 37, a major WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) event. Looking ahead to Sunday’s Super Bowl protest, LaPlant explained that one of their goals with this stunt was “to get everyone back to the Union Hall no later than 4 p.m. so everyone can get home in time for the game.”

Tampa border workers (Source: Twitter/IBEW)

The IBEW 824 approach, however, cannot simply be seen as an inept initiative developed by apparent sports fanatics. The IBEW and other unions in the telecom industry have a history of sabotaging the struggles of telecom workers.

In the spring of 2016, 39,000 Verizon workers in the eastern United States, in cities including New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington DC, went on strike for seven weeks before their struggle was interrupted by the FIOE and Communications Workers of America (CWA). IBEW and CWA met behind closed doors with executives from Verizon and officials from the Obama administration, who oversaw what was then the largest bottom-up transfer of wealth in US history.

The CWA took Verizon workers back to their jobs before they could see the full contract or vote on it. In an effort to appease angry workers, the union released a 10-page summary of an alleged tentative agreement, but the ‘vote’ the CWA then cast was a fraud since it had no impact on the end of the strike.

That same spring, 1,700 AT&T West workers in San Diego went on strike but were intentionally isolated from their striking brothers and sisters against Verizon on the East Coast. CWA Local 9509 has called off its four-day walkout to prevent any form of united struggle across the country. They said the “grievance was settled,” but the workers were fired without any information about the alleged settlement.

Verizon and AT&T strikes in 2016 resulted in settlements that union officials said would “save jobs” but were actually followed by job cuts by both companies.

Since then, the CWA and IBEW have continued to betray the major struggles of telecommunications workers, including:

• In 2017, the IBEW isolated a strike by 1,800 Spectrum workers in New York and New Jersey. At that time, the WSWS noted that the IBEW and CWA represented (and continue to represent) tens of thousands of workers at Verizon, AT&T and other telecommunications companies who all faced the same attacks but did not no attempt to mobilize other workers.

• In 2018, about 1,400 West Virginia border workers went on strike, but were also isolated by the CWA. The strike broke out as 30,000 teachers and other West Virginia school employees went on a nine-day strike in defiance of state anti-strike laws and teacher union sabotage, but the CWA s ensured that frontier workers do not associate with educators in a common struggle.

• In 2019, the CWA ended a powerful six-day strike by 22,000 AT&T workers in nine southern US states. The action was organized by the CWA as an “unfair labor practices” strike, limiting the strike to complaints of “bargaining in bad faith”. The WSWS then warned that this limitation would pave the way for a rapid return to work without a contract or a single substantive issue in favor of the workers. This is exactly what happened.

In all of these cases, CWA and IBEW leaders ensured that telecommunications workers were as isolated as possible. The same is now the case with the local chapter of the IBEW in Tampa, which is channeling pent-up anger from its ranks into ineffectual protests at sporting events. The IBEW will highlight these superficial protests and say it has done something to fight for the benefit of its workers while it negotiates a betrayal with the company behind closed doors.

There is immense potential for frontier workers to break out of the straitjacket imposed by the IBEW and appeal to the broadest layers of workers in the United States and around the world.

Over the past year, tens of thousands of educators have opposed the unsafe return to Florida public schools. Last January, thousands of educators rallied at the state Capitol in Tallahassee to demand increases in salaries and school spending.

Florida also currently has 12 Amazon fulfillment centers across the state with two more expected to open in 2021. Each of these centers can employ more than 1,500 full-time workers who face similar challenges to those faced by workers border.

The WSWS helps workers everywhere build an interconnected network of rank-and-file committees in key industries. We call on Tampa frontier workers to form an independent committee that can appeal to these broad layers of workers (rather than corporate accomplices at Raymond James Stadium) and fight a real fight not just for health care, but also for better wages, working conditions, and other necessary rights that all workers should enjoy in the United States and around the world.

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