Worker Resistance in Telecommunications

Kim Moody

LABOR RESISTANCE SEEMS to be spreading, capturing public support, and even winning some gains here and there.  Such diverse groups as New York cabbies and construction workers, California nurses and transit workers, UPS and GM workers have gone to the streets against the affects of work intensification and industry reorganization.

Less and less are today’s strikes characterized by tiny dispirited picket lines, and more and more by mass actions.  Job security, work time, work loads and the speed of work are as much or more the issues in these struggles as shrinking dollars and chiseled benefits.  These tactics and issues now have resonance in broad sections of the working-class population.

This year the new tide of militancy and mobilization hit the relatively strike-free telecommunications industry, pulling in some workers who hadn’t struck for a long time. Though probably not known to many telecom workers in the fifty states, the traditionally more militant telephone workers of Puerto Rico led off with a forty-day strike of their own beginning in June, followed by a two-day general strike in July in opposition to the sale of the state-owned Puerto Rico Telephone Company to GTE. (See Rafael Bernabe’s report in ATC 76-ed.)

Clearly the social and national mobilization in Puerto Rico was qualitatively beyond any simple trade union economic strike.  Nonetheless, U.S. telephone workers’ activity has strongly revived.

While the Bell Atlantic workers in the former NYNEX area (New York and New England) struck for four months in 1989 and had a history of militancy through the seven month strike of 1971-72, averaging a wildcat-a-month in the late 1960s, those in the Middle Atlantic part of the recently merged company had no such history.

The workers at US West had never struck that company, while those at Southern New England Telephone hadn’t walked out since the mid-1980s, as a result of which they had fallen way behind unionized industry wage levels.

Yet in 1998 all these workers hit the bricks to redress grievances that had accumulated as the industry’s major unionized employers merged, reorganized, took on new services, and cut costs in an increasingly competitive industry.  Indeed, few industries have gone through a transformation as thorough and deep as that in telecommunications.

The fourteen-year trek from an almost lone regulated national service provider (AT&T) to regional local phone companies (the Baby Bells), competing long distance carriers, and a host of new competitors in a growing variety of services had cost thousands of union jobs, completely changed the nature of many remaining jobs, brought on previously unknown forms of speed-up and work regulation, and torn apart a system of national bargaining it had taken a quarter of a century to build.

Downsizing at the Baby Bells eliminated from 30% to 60% of union jobs depending on the company.  The overall unionization rate for the industry fell from 55% in 1983 prior to the AT&T breakup to about 27% in 1997.

The merger wave that began a few years ago in this industry as in so many others gained momentum even as bargaining began this year for 400,000 members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and about 50,000 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

Downsizing by Stress

SBC, formerly Southwestern Bell, had bought up Pacific Telesis last year ($21 billion) and was in the process of gobbling up Ameritech ($57 billion) and Southern New England Telephone ($4.4 billion) this year. Bell Atlantic, itself the product of the merger of the old Bell Atlantic and NYNEX ($25 billion), was buying up GTE ($53 billion).

Crossing into nonunion territory, AT&T offered $31 billion for TCI, while militantly anti-union WorldCom pledged $37 billion for MCI-two moves that would strengthen the nonunion side of the industry.  The major players were becoming larger, but the structure of the industry more uneven both between the union and nonunion companies and among the unionized firms.

The pressure to cut costs, therefore, has become greater.

The issues were symptomatic of the times and the general thrust of cost-cutting that has hit the workforce hard: forced overtime, more temporary jobs, subcontracting, low staffing levels due to excessive downsizing in relation to growing markets, and union access to work on the newer digital services.

Like workers at UPS and GM, the strikers at Bell Atlantic, US West and Southern New England Telephone (SNET) experienced an unexpected outpouring of support from other workers and the public in general.

The major union, the Communications Workers of America, deployed a number of mobilization and public outreach techniques it had been working on the since late 1980s.  This included using “flying squads” or mobile pickets to hound scabs.

What surprised strikers the most at all three companies, however, was the unsolicited response of other groups of workers.  The SNET strikers tell of how when they entered the cafeteria of the Connecticut State Legislature, the employees gave them a standing ovation.

US West workers in Minneapolis and Seattle said people from other unions just showed up at the picket lines with food and drinks.

The strike at Bell Atlantic was only two days long. It was previewed, however, by a two-hour “wildcat” in New York City, organized by the leadership of CWA Local 1101 the day before the contract expired.

In Midtown Manhattan this turned into a pushing match with the police as a mass demonstration spilled past police barricades.

While the company certainly anticipated a militant strike in the former NYNEX region, they seemed to believe the Middle Atlantic states would prove weak. They didn’t.  There was virtually no scabbing during the two-day strike of 73,000 Bell Atlantic workers.

The August strike at US West was even more of a surprise because an inexperienced workforce spread from Washington state to New Mexico struck solidly for two weeks before their leaders came up with a tentative agreement.

The workers at SNET refused an offer accepted by the local union leaders and, on August 23, launched a strike that became a social movement lasting nearly a month until the union got an agreement in mid-September.

New Leverage

Even before electronics and digitalization transformed this industry, strikes were never able to close down its highly automated services.  Strikes would affect repairs and installations of new service and operator services (before they were largely automated), but no more.

When the industry was more or less a monopoly limited to traditional telephone service, this didn’t really hurt the company.  To be at all effective, strikes in telecommunications had to take on a political, mass movement character and last a long time, as did the four-month NYNEX strike in 1989.

In the new competitive era, however, the strike hit hard at precisely the high tech, big ticket digital business-oriented services that are the meat of industry competition these days. Here new on-the-spot installations, upgrades, and repairs are essential.

When installation technicians and sales personnel strike, competition moves in. Commenting on the Bell Atlantic strike’s apparent quick success, a Wall Streeter noted that during the walkout competing firms “were licking their lips.”

The New York Times said of the US West settlement, “With nonunion companies competing hungrily for telephone business in booming cities of the Rockies, US West tentatively settled a two-week strike.”

In its own 1998 pre-strike Bell Atlantic Mobilization manual, the CWA noted that such competition “may also strengthen our bargaining power.” In the SNET strike, the CWA used the threat of an active campaign to get AFL-CIO members in Connecticut to switch carriers to pressure the company.

The competition that had brought the workers and their union so much grief thus also gave new impact to the strike weapon.

While it would be stretching a point to compare the U.S. contract strikes to the Puerto Rican strikes, the CWA did turn toward political actions to put pressure on the companies.

In the SNET strike, in particular, the union marched on the Connecticut state legislature several times.  It also pressured the state utility board, which still has regulatory powers.  These sorts of politicizing tactics were used successfully in the highly active 1989 NYNEX strike.

Gains and Losses

This new leverage certainly helped the CWA make some of the gains it did during this round of bargaining.  Limits were placed on forced overtime and subcontracting where they hadn’t existed before.

Traditional installation and maintenance work on new high tech equipment or services will go to union members, although it appears that not all the new occupations associated with these areas are included.

A major goal of the union was access to nonunion services by a simple show of cards signed by a majority of the workers.  In one or another form it was won almost everywhere.

As real as these improvements are, they will not stop the hemorrhaging of jobs due to downsizing as the merger trend continues and competition spreads to more and more services.  In fact, the CWA has continued to address this larger problem through early retirement as a means of avoiding actual layoffs.

Even where they succeed in this goal, however, downsizing can continue and work intensification increase.  In the case of the US West agreement, the union has even allowed the door to be opened to a particularly vicious form of work flexibilization called pay-for performance.  This would allow the company to chisel on overtime, working people twelve to fourteen hours at straight time.

Union negotiators had promised not to accept this, but did when the company agreed to make it “voluntary.” This was seen by many as a dangerous precedent for all telecommunications companies.

Finally, the CWA has allowed the system of pattern bargaining that replaced the national contract after the 1984 AT&T breakup to come unglued.  Whereas up to this bargaining round, the CWA and IBEW contracts expired within the same calendar year, now they will be spread over a period of years.

Contracts range in length from two years at Bell Atlantic; to thirty-two months at SBC, including its new SNET subsidiary; three years at US West, BellSouth, and GTE-Southwest; four years at AT&T; and five years at Lucent Technologies.  This spread will certainly make it difficult to maintain anything like industry standards in the unionized sector.

Whatever outcomes the union officials have accepted in this unusually turbulent bargaining round, telecommunications workers from San Juan to Seattle have experienced the kind of power felt by union members at GM or UPS. While it is not a power that always stops these giant firms from grinding down their workforce or guarantees that union negotiators will extract the maximum, it is a power that inflicts pain on corporate America in today’s difficult and always changing circumstances.

While few CWA members may have drawn the more political lessons taught by their Puerto Rican sisters and brothers, they and those who actively supported them most certainly moved toward an understanding of these strikes as a political conflict between corporate America and the working population.

In an uneven way, the telecom strikes of 1998 underline the new situation labor faces: more powerful and aggressive employers driven by increased competition, whether local or global, confronting a working class tired of years of downsizing, casualization, and speed-up and more willing to use the power it had forgotten it had, or that it has gained.

With a new sense of power more and more groups of workers have the confidence not only to strike, but to make their strike a mass mobilization and to reach out for support.  For socialists, this is a dynamic with far more political potential than the sleaze-and-bomb politics coming out of Washington these days.

Kim Moody is a staff writer for Labor Notes and the author of Workers in a Lean World (Verso, 1997).

ATC 77, November-December 1998