We tend to think of labor unions as a thing of the past. Not, of course, that workers no longer need protection. But since the beginning of the first Reagan administration, we have become used to workers' rights being chipped - and sometimes hacked - away by the powerful interests of capital. (The same powerful interests, of course, that unions were designed to fight against). The overall percentage of workers who belong to unions has been falling for generations, in part because of Reagan-era legal decisions that lessened the power of unions and in part because of globalization and a shift away (in the United States and in othe First World countries) from the heavy-industrial jobs that have tended to be the most heavily unionized, as Boeri (2001) notes.
But even as heavy industry is losing jobs and unions are losing those same workers, in other parts of the economy unions are gaining new members and new strengths. The Telecommunications Workers of America, the focus of this paper, is one of these relatively new unions that helps its members to meet the challenges of a workplace in which jobs leak daily overseas (encouraged by the process of globalization) and in which the same high-tech tools that allow workers to do their jobs are often used to spy on them.
The same demands that were once made of employers by steel workers are now made by telecommunications workers: Decent pay, safe working conditions, basic respect, non-discriminatory policies. The fact that unions are springing up in new fields is an indicator that workers continue to need the protections offered by organization.
History of the Union
The history of the Telecommunications Worker of America cannot be told apart from the history of labor unions as a whole. Unions began springing up in Britain, Europe and the United States during the 19th century as organizations of the workers in different trades or different workplaces. In each case, workers came together to use the power of collective action and collective bargaining to negotiate improvements in a number of working conditions - including pay but also safety, benefits, and status.
The history of unions in the United States is actually a fairly sporadic one, as Smith and Molloy (2003) note, with different unions in different fields rising and falling in strength until they have reached the current lows now being seen. The trajectory of union membership and union political power (the two are certainly related, although not in a simple one-to-one way) has not been one-way, with first a quick rise and then a precipitous fall of membership. Even now, as suggested above, as the future of organized labor looks grim in many parts of the United States, it is being strengthened by unions that are taking hold within service, light industrial and professional ranks - all arenas of society that had traditionally been more resistant to (and even hostile to) union organization.
The Communications Workers of America, as a union, has a history typical of other labor unions in the United States in that it has absorbed a number of other unions along the way: The current union is in fact very much an amalgam of previous unions. While it was not until 1947 that "a truly national union, the Communications Workers of America came into being," the roots of the union lie in the first decades of the 20th century with the beginnings of the establishment of the modern communications infrastructure.
Unionization of the telephone industry during the first three decades of this century was confined to a few scattered pockets of organized workers. The first union to attempt to organize telephone workers -- the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) achieved limited success during these years. These early organizing efforts did not include women who worked in the telephone industry. It was not until 1912 that the IBEW accepted telephone operators -- generally women -- as members. In 1919, IBEW's telephone department claimed 200 telephone locals with 20,000 members (http://www.cwa-union.org/about/history.asp).
The first decades of unionization in this field were troubled: The industry was nationalized during World War I and so unions were illegal until 1923; in the years after that AT&T (which held an almost perfect monopoly in the growing field of telecommunications, in no small part because of federal government decisions that favored the company) pushed its workers into company-affiliated associations that had few of the advantages for workers of true unions. The communications workers made no-strike pledges during World War II, and so it was not until the years right after World War II that the shape of the modern union began to emerge.
Membership and Structure
Headquartered in Washington DC (with a number of regional offices across the country), CWA represents close to three-quarters of a million workers in both the public and private spheres and is the nation's largest communications and media union.
These workers - many of whom are in high-tech information technology fields - work in a number of different industries and professions, including "telecommunications, broadcasting, cable TV, journalism, publishing, electronics and general manufacturing... airline customer service, government service, health care, education and other fields" (http://www.cwa-union.org/about/profile_history.asp).
Members belong to about 1200 locals in the United States (including Puerto Rico) and Canada and have entered into over 2000 collective bargaining agreements, a number of which include progressive benefits such as education programs and child and family care provisions. CWA workers are employed by AT&T, GTE, the baby Bells, Lucent Technologies/Bell Labs, General Electric, NBC, ABC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, U.S. Airways and the University of California system.
The union's structure is summarized in the below chart:
CWA Organizational Structure (1938-Present)
When CWA changed to a two-level structure, eleven Districts were created (9 geographic Districts and Western Electric Sales and Western Electric Installations). In 1953, Districts 10 and 11 were dissolved. Consolidation was completed in 1986 when Districts 5 and 8 were dissolved. http://www.cwa-union.org/about/history.asp
Management and Human Diversity
This information specialist for the University of California has been a union member for the past 14 years and has served as shop steward for three years. She praises the union both for its internal diversity and for its ability to support its members' needs while at the same time its ability to work with management.
This is a strong union because collectively we bring a lot of different kinds of talents to the table. I would think that it would be harder to build a strong union when everyone has exactly the same skills. We are diverse - in terms of gender and race, in terms of geography, in terms of levels of education. In lots of ways we are like the country as a whole. And that's what makes us a good union. Because we have different interests and different needs. We go into a negotiation understanding that we'll have to compromise about some issues and also understanding that if some of us believe that a certain issue cannot be compromised, then the rest of us aren't going to compromise about it either.
We're not interested in picking fights with the management. We're interested in doing a good job and in protecting our rights. We understand that we have responsibilities just like the management does. But we also understand that we have rights - and that's something that the management of wherever our workers are might just not remember if we didn't have a union here to remind them of that.
Riccucci (1990) argues that the strengths of such unions lies in their ability to bring together male and female workforces, something that was often lacking in earlier unions, which tended to be either predominantly male (like the Autoworkers' Union) or primarily female (like the International Ladies Garment Workers Union).
Effect on Non-Union Companies
While a number of communications workers are unionized, many are not, with the result that the effect of the union on non-unionized workers is attenuated. Riccucci argue that unions such as the TWA have generally improved working conditions (including salary but more obviously in other arenas) of non-union members. The presence of a strong union in a field overall has beneficial effects both for the union and for other workers. Because union workers are forced to compete with non-union workers they are challenged to maintain a high level of productivity.
The courts have in recent years limited the power of unions to run "closed shops" and the TWA abides by these rulings. However, they do actively attempt to bring other workers into the union by holding informational pickets in various sites, including other companies and at technical conventions.
I've spent a lot of time recruiting and sometimes, I have to admit, it can be pretty discouraging because you get a lot of, "Why do I need a union?" And, you know, you're tempted to say to them,…