Stronger Together: Bianca Cunningham talks to Russ Weiss-Irwin

From left: Bianca Cunningham, Sen. Bernie Sanders, CWA District 1 Vice
President Dennis Trainor, and former CWA President Larry Cohen. Photo
courtesy of CWA.

Bianca Cunningham is a DSA member in Brooklyn, NY, and chair of the NYC DSA Labor Branch. She led her coworkers to join Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 1109 in 2014, becoming the first ever Verizon Wireless retail workers to unionize. Verizon fired her for organizing, and during the recent Verizon strike, picketers across the country chanted “Bring Back Bianca!” She now works as a staff organizer for CWA. This interview was conducted by email and phone in July, shortly before the NLRB ruled in her favor. —RW

    RW: Why did you first decide to form a union in your Verizon Wireless store?

    BC: I had been dealing with bullying and sexual harassment from some of my managers to the point that I felt sick going into work almost every day. Finally, my grandfather gave me the advice to pull the manager to the side, look her square in the eye, and tell her, “I’m not the one to be f___ed with!”

“Well,” I told him, “You’re a businessman who owns a multimillion-dollar business: it’s easy for you to say that. But for us regular folks, that would never work.” But I kept thinking about it, and thinking of ways that I could do it. When I reached out to [CWA Local 1109], that was my subliminal f___ you to the company!

    RW: How did it feel when Verizon fired you for organizing and suddenly Verizon workers across the country knew your name?

    BC: When I was fired, I was really shocked and felt betrayed. I had worked so hard for Verizon for five years. I got awards and always did what they asked of me and more. When I first got fired, I thought, “What could I have done to avoid this?” But the answer really was nothing—it wasn’t me, it was just the movement. [Becoming nationally known] was so surreal. All the support from the union and local elected officials made me feel supported and empowered, and kept me fighting. It was amazing.

When we went on strike with Verizon landline workers, we saw such an outpouring of support— from the public, from DSA, from retail workers at AT&T who are already union, and even from Bernie Sanders! We really felt the love. And finally, after three years, Brooklyn Verizon Wireless retail workers won our first union contract.

    RW: Did you already see yourself as socialist before that experience, or only after?

    BC: I grew up in a Christian household. My grandparents made me read The Negro by W.E.B. Du Bois and listen to old speeches from Martin Luther King, Jr. There are a lot of socialist principles taught in a Southern black church: the idea of collectivity, the principle that things should come from the people themselves, ideas about race. I was able to connect the dots once I started reading more in high school and college. Even now, Martin Luther King is the best example for me of channeling Christian love and principles into socialist politics.

    RW: What made you decide to join DSA? How do you see being a socialist activist as connected to being a leader in CWA?

    BC: I share an office with a number of other CWA organizers; we had been part of a group called the “Project for Working Class Power.” It was good, but it was too much talk. When people started to talk about joining DSA, I asked, “Will this be about action?” We knew DSA people from the Bernie campaign—CWA endorsed Bernie—and we saw they had the same things in mind as we did. By joining DSA, we’re part of a larger network and a bigger movement.

As far as the connection with my union work, it’s important to be able to help my co-workers connect the dots between their day-to-day frustrations at work and in their personal lives to a greater movement, especially for forming leaders in communities of color.

    RW: How did the NYC Labor Branch—a group of socialist union staff and rank-and-file leaders—get started? What has it done and what do you think is next?

    BC: We had put so much energy into the Sanders campaign and reached out to so many people. We experienced the enthusiasm with millennials as well as the lack of enthusiasm in communities of color. We wanted to use that momentum to educate and really engage with these disenfranchised rank-and-file members who were looking for answers and looking for a way in which they could take action that can, we hope, lead to real change down the line.

We felt a labor branch was the appropriate way to go. Most of us had relationships with other folks in unions and access to members. We believe that making the connection between a union and a grander idea of socialism is important for the future of unions and for people to get a greater understanding of why unions are important, not just in the public sector.

Going forward, we all want to get behind the Black Lives Matter movement. We want to do member education and mobilize a larger rank-and-file presence behind the movement inside and outside the workplace. I hope that we will really affect our city and become a real player in this process of trying to build a socialist movement by supporting politicians who support our ideals and educating the community as a whole about socialism, starting with the workplace.

Russ Weiss-Irwin is a member of Central New Jersey DSA.

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