The Verizon Strike, Men and Job Insecurity

Seeing Verizon workers on strike picketing outside company offices made me think about 1971.

My dad was working for what was then New York Telephone Company (this was years before the breakup of AT&T into the “Baby Bells”) and the union he belonged to, the Communications Workers of America, went on strike.

It ended up dragging on for seven months.

I was 7 at the time but I can recall well the feeling of stress in the household over making ends meet. Dad collected picket duty pay from the union, and after nine weeks, he got unemployment benefits and qualified for food stamps, but even then, things were financially squeaky.

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Me with a picket sign.

Dad hustled whatever odd jobs he could — cleaning windows, for instance — and Mom was already babysitting kids in our Bronx building.

It’s bad enough to face job insecurity when you are young and have a family. What I have discovered though is that it’s even worse to face that kind of unpredictable future when guys hit middle age.

I recall in the mid-1990s reading news accounts of layoffs at IBM in New York and stories quoting guys who had been with the company for 25 years who wondered where they were going to get a job now that they were in their 50s.

I was not quite yet 30 and I remember thinking: What could possibly be so bad? How tough could this be?

Now that I am 51, I have a deeper appreciation and understanding for the stresses and worries of job insecurity. I work in news, an industry that is undergoing titanic changes and is shedding jobs faster than cat hair.

Like many men, I have equated my career with my life. But beyond that is the overwhelmingly sense of responsibility imbued in us to be the breadwinner. (Yeah, I know it’s an antiquated term but it’s one I grew up with.)

So many guys my age that I personally know have either lost jobs, faced the prospect of losing their job, been demoted or lived in the fear of any one of those things happening.

I asked a friend, Joe McNulty, who is a Verizon worker now on strike, to share his thoughts on job insecurity. This is what he wrote:

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Joe McNulty on the picket line.

Today I walked approximately six miles around a tight picket line in front of a Verizon Wireless store in Portchester, N.Y. At 51 years of age and 20 years on the job, I am not the senior man or close to it. I am better off than most in that my wife has a good-paying job, we live in a modest apartment in the Bronx and have no children. Still, I am anxious.

During the Great Recession, the stories on the nightly news that always tugged at my heart strings were the middle-aged workers who ended up out of work after years at one job and not a clue what to do next. There was no way I could find a job with the same pay and benefits, not to mention the thought of leaving my dear co-workers.

Working for the phone company gave me an identity. I was the phone guy. Whenever family or friends need something phone-related, they call me. Now I’m thinking those poor middle-aged workers on the nightly news were also victims of a kind of identity theft. How awful to be asked 10 years before retirement, “So, what do you do?” and have to start your reply with “I was….”

This strike will end and I will continue to be a phone man. Everyone walking the line knows that technology can make us obsolete at any moment. We just want to be the last dinosaurs to die a natural death before the mass extinction.

(For a related post about the tension and frustration of searching for a job after you’ve been downsized in middle age, check out best man jokes online dating)

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