Black telephone workers fight for MLK holiday

NEWARK, N.J. – Black telephone workers at Verizon are continuing their fight to force the company to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a paid holiday. Although Dr. King’s birthday was won as a federal and state holiday, in private industry only twenty-six percent of employees at private companies have won a paid holiday. Many find it unbelievable that a company as large as Verizon, with so many Black employees and a large Black customer base, is not on the right side when it comes to Dr. King’s birthday. Verizon workers said private industry must not be let off the hook when it comes to respecting the contributions of King and the African American people’s struggle for justice.

During the contract struggle of 2000, when the issue of King’s birthday as a paid holiday was pushed to the side, Black workers at Verizon (members of IBEW Local 827) decided to get organized. They formed Black Telephone Workers For Justice (BTWFJ) and dedicated themselves to forcing Verizon to recognize this issue. “It was clear to us, that only as an organized force could we mount a struggle to make Verizon see that Black workers are serious about this issue,” Ron Washington, BTWFJ president, told the World.

Black workers went to union meetings and published a monthly newsletter, “Finally got the 411!” which helped to spread their struggle throughout Essex County. They also embarked upon building unity with community organizations in the Newark area.

In January 2001, they called for the first company-wide demonstration, on King’s birthday. The demonstration and rally, held in downtown Newark across from the Verizon headquarters, enjoyed community and labor support and was a huge success, despite the fact that the local was not officially involved. In the subsequent demonstrations of January 2002 and 2003, however, the local union fully supported the demonstrations and demand. “This is a clear victory for our efforts,” said Washington. “In addition, after two years of struggle Dr. King’s birthday is now one of the key demands in this year’s contract struggle.”

Verizon’s contract with its union employees is up August 2003, and workers are determined to make the issue of Dr. King’s birthday as important as wages or benefits.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org