How did a Verizon Wireless employee who advocated for a bullied colleague end up with a pink slip? That question was on the tongues of many at a protest in front of an 86th Street cellphone shop last week.
Hundreds of red shirt-clad workers joined with elected officials outside Verizon Wireless (2141 86th Street) Thursday, September 10, calling on the company not to fire sales representative and union leader Bianca Cunningham.
The union, CWA Local 1109, says the cellular company has decided to terminate Cunningham because she was simple performing her role as leader and counseling a fellow worker who felt intimidated by a superior. CWA notes that Cunningham is not the first union member to be fired by Verizon.
Furthermore, the union argues that the firing of Cunningham is a direct response to their ongoing negotiations for a better contract for Verizon workers, and an attempt to intimidate the other retail workers.
“Bianca was one of the main reasons why [Brooklyn Verizon workers] had elected to join our union,” said CWA Local 1109 President Tony Spina. “They’re trying to cut the head off the snake.”
Verizon Wireless denies the charges, insisting they are not treating Cunningham any different than any other worker.
“The CWA is flat-out wrong. 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,” the company said in a statement.
According to the union, a Verizon sales rep contacted Cunningham “hysterically crying” because she has been assigned a manager who had gotten into an altercation with her before, and she felt threatened. After Cunningham began negotiating for her coworker and helped her file a complaint, Verizon management allegedly started interrogating both women incessantly in a series of “investigations.” When Verizon allegedly demanded Cunningham share her private text messages, she refused to comply and she was fired, according to CWA officials.
Politicians who attended the protest — including Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Assemblyman Peter Abbate, Assemblyman William Colton, and Councilman Mark Treyger — spoke out in support of Cunningham last week.
Treyger said Cunningham’s cause hit home for him as a former public school teacher.
“As a former member of a labor union myself — I was a UFT delegate — one of the most important rights we have, is the right to be member of a union and certainly collective bargaining,” said Treyger. “We have to make sure we respect our workers and treat them with the dignity they deserve. Verizon needs to act like a more responsible corporate citizen. This is a message we are sending to Verizon — and to every multi-billion dollar company — that your money doesn’t determine your power over people.”
Meanwhile, Treyger said he and his staff went into Cunningham’s workplace and inquired about why she was fired, but a manager there refused to offer an explanation.
“They wouldn’t even give us the respect of explaining it to us,” said Treyger. “It is highly suspect what they did for her and that they wouldn’t even speak to us. This is something we take seriously. This is a person who was working hard and wants to support herself and her loved ones. Why are they doing this to her?”
At Verizon Wireless, CWA represents approximately 100 long-time, unionized technicians in New York State and 75 retail employees in Brooklyn and Everett, MA. The 65 workers in Brooklyn are the first retail workers to form a union in Verizon Wireless and are seeking a fair first contract. Employees says management is refusing to offer any raises, benefits or improvements to working conditions at the bargaining table for the Brooklyn workers (and also newly-unionized Everett, Massachusetts workers).
Spina said that while Verizon has not backed down from its decision to terminate Cunniningham, the protest went a long way to empower Brooklyn workers in their fight for worker’s rights.
“The workers felt great. We got our people together — and we are fighting with Verizon on the other end for a contract — and they felt very good, because they’ve been through a lot,” said the union leader. “Just to see the sea of red out there last night, it made them feel like someone’s behind them and made them feel good about joining a union — because without a union, where would Bianca be?”
CWA has filed federal charges against Verizon for threatening to fire Cunningham and expects the charges to be upheld.