August 17, 2011
An unlikely union force turned out for the monthly school board meeting tonight to protest a controversial contract that was up for approval.
For once, it wasn’t members of the United Federation of Teachers that was most vocal against the city’s education proposals, but thousands of angry phone technicians with the Communciation Workers of America.
The workers are part of a 45,000-member nationwide strike against Verizon for higher wages and better health benefits. For two weeks, the New York Locals have picketed in front of Verizon stores and corporate headquarters.
But tonight, the workers took their fight to Murry Bergtraum High School – coincidentally across the street from Verizon’s main headquarters – where the Panel for Education Policy voted to approve a $120 million contract for the telecommunications company to provide data services to the Department of Education.
The controversy surrounding the Verizon’s contract began before the work stoppage and its vote was already delayed once. Earlier this year, Special Commissioner for Investigation Richard Condon found that Verizon played an indirect but facilitating role in a DOE sub-contractor’s corruption. That subcontractor, Willard Lanham, stole $3.6 million from the city.
In interviews, the strikers said they did not oppose the contract, but believed it should be tabled again until their work dispute with Verizon was settled.
“It’s not that we don’t want them to get the contract,” said Max Nelson, a member of Brooklyn’s Local 1109 who has worked as a technician with Verizon for 21 years. “We think it’s unfair that they’d be negotiating for a $120 million contract while we’re on strike.”
The crowd lined St. James Place in lower Manhattan, coincidentally located across the street from the 32-story Verizon Building. With that as a backdrop, City Comptroller John Liu, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, UFT president Michael Mulgrew and mayoral candidate Bill Thompson spoke in support of the strike.
“You don’t get the contract if you didn’t do the last one right or legally,” said Stringer, who’s appointed PEP member, Patrick Sullivan, who later fulfilled his pledge to vote against the contract.
Once the meeting began, hundreds of the protesters filed inside to the high school auditorium and resumed their jeers, which were often disruptive to the point where the panel members could not be heard. The impatient CWA crowd wasn’t there to discuss state test scores or the new sex education curriculum, which were first on the agenda. They nonetheless booed presentations by Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky and Chancellor Dennis Walcott about those topics. After the panel voted 8-4 to approve the contract, they filed out of the auditorium