“We’re not just doing it for us, but we’re doing it so millions of middle class people can benefit.”
Donna Baugham-Perry was not surprised when the strike call came though. “Based on what I knew about the current political climate, and what was going on in Michigan, and the way unions were generally being treated, I had a hunch that we’d have a work stoppage.”
Even at 8 months pregnant, Donna walks the picket line in the August heat at 140 West Street, Manhattan nearly every day. “I had planned to work straight through to my due date,” she said.
The Communications Workers of America (C.W.A.) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (I.B.E.W.) went on strike on August 6th. The two unions represent approximately 45,000 workers in Verizon’s wire lines division from Massachusetts to Virginia. Verizon sought concessions in its employees’ contracts, citing a lasting drop in revenue for its land line business and non-union competition in television and Internet service. Verizon’s wireless division is not unionized.
C.W.A. and I.B.E.W. note that Verizon is not a struggling company. It earned $6.9 billion in net income over the first 6 months of 2011. The company is asking that its employees pay $1,300 to $3,000 per year towards their health care plans. It also seeks to cut employee wages and degrade the current pension plan. These are among the most important issues on a list of over 100 concessions.
For Donna, her employer’s demands amount to one more assault on working people during a half-decade that has, through crises and policies, degraded the very concept of an American middle class. She’s been working at Verizon for 12 years. Her strike is about preserving the middle class for future generations, the right to engage in collective bargaining, and the power of communities to agree on and work for the lives they want.
“I have a few friends who were like, ‘Well, we’re in a poor economy, so how could you expect to have job security?’ But the reality of it is that you will never have an improved economy without job security.”
Donna is 32 years old and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Her mother, Roslyn Baugham, raised her and her three sisters to be faithful to God, faithful to community, and to stand up for what is right. She wears an expression of constant peace, though she is not at peace with the state of her country or community.
When she speaks, her words flow like an ongoing poem; sometimes she talks to a beat. You get the impression that someone stitched a moral compass into her soul, and the compass radiates outwards. She has no patience for critiques of those in power, whether Verizon’s CEO or President Obama, because she believes that the power of collective citizen action is unquestionably stronger than any one person.
I first interviewed Donna in 2008 as part of a research and media project on gentrification in central Brooklyn. The project was in partnership with Brown Memorial Baptist Church, where Donna attends services. At the time, she spoke passionately about the changes in her neighborhood, Clinton Hill, and her vision for it:
Audio transcription: “The ideal community would be a melting pot of people who are willing to look at one another and say, ‘You are my friend. You are my brother and let’s work together. You’re my friend. You’re my sister and let’s work together to make this community the best community that it can be.'”
Three years later, out on the picket line, Donna and her colleagues look and act much like the ideal community she described.
Meanwhile, she and her husband have been priced out of Clinton Hill. They bought a house in the Poconos (“You know, chasing the American Dream like everyone else,” she said.) and commuted two hours to and from work in New York City every day. Since her husband worked on Sundays too, Donna joined him for the ride and went to church, ultimately missing fewer Sunday services than she did when she lived right in Brooklyn.
With news of a baby on the way, however, the couple came back to stay with Donna’s mother in Brooklyn — the heart of their support network.
Assuming the strike is resolved, Donna’s baby will be a ‘Verizon baby’ — a term Donna uses to describe herself because she was born while her own mother was employed at Verizon. Mrs. Baugham worked there 36 years, which included the 17-week strike of 1989.
Audio transcription: “I was about 10 years old when they had the strike of ‘89. I remember those days. I remember helping my mom role pennies to try to make ends meet, and I remember her sewing our school clothes because money was tight. I remember that. I’ll probably never remember it in the way in which she remembers it, but I think I have a greater appreciation for why we’re out there today because of what they did in ’89, because I understand that what they fought for in 1989 has enabled me in the opportunities I have now.”
If the strike isn’t resolved before September 31st Donna will deliver her baby under her husband’s medical plan, which could amount to a hospital bill well over $1,000. Her husband won’t be able to take any days off to bond with his daughter. Prayer takes Donna through the strike.
“There used to be a day that I would hear people say, ‘I know God today to be a provider,’ and I’d be like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But today I know God to be a provider, you know. I know God to be a way-maker out of no way.”
Audio transcription: “This situation has taken my faith to a whole other level, that I never even thought possible. It has been a very humbling experience for me. It’s been an experience where, some nights, it has taken me straight to my knees. There used to be a day that I would hear people say, ‘I know God today to be a provider,’ and I’d be like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But today I know God to be a provider, you know. I know God to be a way-maker out of no way.”