The two-week-long, 45,000-employee strike at Verizon Communications has thrust Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, into the national spotlight.
At a time when big strikes are increasingly rare, the Verizon walkout grabbed plenty of attention and ended uncertainly on Aug. 23, as employees returned to work under the terms of an old contract. Negotiations between the two sides are set to resume soon, and tensions continue to run high.
At the helm of the Verizon battle is Cohen, 61, a longtime labor stalwart who has fought to make workers’ right to join unions a prime issue for the fractious American labor movement.
Cohen has mostly avoided publicity during his half-decade of union leadership. But as the architect of the nation’s largest strike since 2007, he has been pushed into a new position of prominence.
“There were certainly many Jewish activists of my generation, and most of them went on to do other things that were easier,” said Bruce Raynor, the recently deposed head of the garment workers union who, like Cohen, joined the labor movement with an activist background. “You’ve got to credit the Larry Cohens of this world for sticking to it.”
CWA, which represents phone company employees, newspaper workers, flight attendants and others, is among the largest unions in the country. According to the union’s latest filings with the Labor Department, it represents about 500,000 workers, placing it behind mega-unions like the Service Employees International Union but still in the top tier of American labor organizations.
Unlike Jewish union leaders such as former SEIU President Andy Stern and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, Cohen has not sought to become a public figure. Despite a recent appearance on MSNBC, he is not a regular cable news show guest nor is he frequently quoted in the national press.
Cohen declined to speak with the Forward for this story. CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson wrote in an e-mail that he “doesn’t really like profiles of him because he always wants the focus to be on the negotiations or the organizing or the issues.”
Some Forward editorial and business staff members, including this reporter, are represented by the Newspaper Guild, which is affiliated with the CWA. Forward production staff are members of a CWA local.
The CWA has members across the country, due to its roots organizing the old telephone monopolies. Its members are, on the whole, better paid than the rank-and-file members of other unions.
“In that sense, they’re more like the old steelworkers and even the autoworkers, in that they’re defending a kind of American dream standard of living,” said Joshua B. Freeman, a history professor at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Raised in Philadelphia, Cohen was a year ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Cheltenham High School, a suburban public school with a large Jewish population. He received a master’s degree from Rutgers University and was an active participant in the antiwar movement.
Cohen was among a number of of activists, many of whom were Jewish, to turn from the antiwar and civil rights movements to the labor movement and rise through the ranks as organizers. The SEIU’s Stern and Raynor, formerly of SEIU affiliate Workers United, followed similar paths.
“It was an extension of having ended the war in Vietnam, and civil rights was moving in the right direction and women’s rights was starting,” Raynor said in an interview. “We saw it as a way to make the world a better place for working people.”
Cohen’s first major organizing success came in New Jersey. There, in the early 1980s, he led a drive that unionized 36,000 state workers, making CWA the largest public sector union in the state, except for the teacher’s union.
It was “a huge victory for the union,” recalled Steve Rosenthal, a political consultant and former political director of the AFL-CIO, who worked with Cohen on the drive. “He’s driven by anger at the way workers are treated and by the power of employers who run roughshod over workers.”
Cohen assumed the leadership of CWA at a divisive moment for the labor movement. After serving under CWA President Morton Bahr for nearly two decades, first as director of organizing and then as executive vice-president, Cohen was elected president in August of 2005. That election coincided with a battle among labor leaders over the future of the AFL-CIO, a national federation of unions.
That battle came 10 years after former SEIU President John Sweeney’s election to head the labor federation, in a contentious vote that was seen at the time as an effort to revitalize the organization. By 2005, many of those who had supported Sweeney had grown disenchanted with the pace of his reforms, and a handful of large unions began threatening to leave the AFL-CIO.
The debate over the split divided Cohen from Stern, Raynor and hotel and restaurant union head John Wilhelm, all of whom had similar roots as left-wing activists and organizers. While the latter three took their unions out of the AFL-CIO to form the competing Change to Win federation, Cohen and the CWA stayed behind.
The goal of the new group was to mount aggressive organizing campaigns, but Cohen believed it was more important to build support for the right of workers to belong to unions. In recent years, Republicans have successfully attacked organizing rights, and corporations have sought to do the same. Cohen “didn’t believe the kind of top-down restructuring and the rigid parceling out of union jurisdiction and splitting off was going to lead to a new labor federation that was going to function better than the old one,” said Steve Early, a former CWA staff member and author of “The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor,” which deals in part with Cohen’s leadership of CWA.
In a 2005 interview for The Nation conducted by Rutgers Professor Janice Fine, Cohen argued that the primary issue facing unions was not their size, but their dwindling sway over the political culture.
“The crisis is about American workers’ right to join and build unions,” he said at the time.
Five years after its founding, Change to Win is broadly seen as having failed to live up to its promise. Some of its members have rejoined the AFL-CIO, and there has been some talk of the entire federation merging back into the larger organization.
Meanwhile, Cohen’s arguments against the split have had a second airing during the Verizon strike.
“Larry has been focused on the right to organize as long or longer than any union leader that I know of, and that’s enormously to his credit,” said Wilhelm, president of UNITE HERE, the hotel and restaurant workers union.
The strike of Verizon landline workers, which began on August 6, was called in protest of what CWA officials portrayed as Verizon’s unreasonable bargaining positions. In rhetoric surrounding the Verizon strike, Cohen drew parallels with union efforts in Wisconsin. There, unions opposed moves by the state’s Republican governor to limit collective bargaining rights for state workers.
“The same middle-class fight from Wisconsin, for the public workers, is now here at Verizon,” Cohen told MSNBC host Ed Schultz on Schultz’s August 10 program.
Although CWA members have returned to their jobs, all is not well in the wake of the agreement to return to work. On August 20, the same day the agreement was announced, CWA released a fiery statement in response to a broadside from a Verizon official who had implied that the union had not been bargaining in good faith. The union promised to “fight and fight hard” if the management statement were not retracted.
The outcome of the bargaining process remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Cohen’s own future in union leadership has a definite endpoint. Cohen’s current term as CWA president will end in 2015, at which point he will have turned 65. According to spokeswoman Johnson, Cohen believes that leaders in top union positions should step down at 65.
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org