Labor Briefing for June 2017

June 2017 CWA strikeBy BILL ONASCH

Off the Job Training—Of the 700,000 members of the Communications Workers of America, 150,000 work for AT&T—making them second only to UPS as the biggest unionized private sector employer in the U.S. But since deregulation “broke up” the virtual telephone monopoly of Ma Bell in the 1980s, a single national contract has been replaced with dozens of agreements. Many of these are small newly unionized units in the wireless part of the industry that is rapidly supplanting landlines.

While the company peacefully settled some of the agreements in traditional union strongholds, they decided to challenge the CWA in newer units that had never participated in a strike.

On May 19, CWA used the strike authorization voted by the membership to call out more than 40,000 ATT Mobility workers for a three-day, long-weekend walkout that was also joined in some areas by thousands of landline workers and 2000 employees of Direct TV, a satellite network recently acquired by AT&T.

The strike served two objectives. It was intended as a warning to the company of what to expect if they continue to stonewall in negotiations. Last year CWA effectively shut down Verizon, a spin-off from the former Bell system in the Northeast, and a leader in wireless business.

But it was also a test of the commitment and organizational ability of thousands of new members who had never before walked a picket line. While not everything went off like clockwork, these workers passed the stress test, and areas of concern were identified so that they could be reinforced. An open-ended strike threat, like last year’s shutdown at Verizon, remains credible.

At our deadline, the company appeared to be willing to resume meaningful negotiations. We’ll likely will know more next month.

Prevailing Double-Dealing—On May 22, more than 100 mostly Latino unorganized workers walked off their jobs at the construction site of a new high-end Omni Hotel in Louisville. They claimed the subcontractor who had hired them was cheating them on wages—a charge hotly denied by the boss, whose defense was that he was paying them the rate offered when they were hired.

While the boss was technically correct on that score, workers had discovered that union members doing similar work were paid $40 an hour while they were receiving only about $20. They contacted an attorney, who explained that since about half of the $289 million cost of the hotel was being picked up by local and state subsidies, it qualified as a “prevailing wage” project. That means union scale has to be paid even if workers don’t belong to a union.

But the subcontractor argued he was paying a union scale—also technically correct while actually deceitful. For some years, in most areas, the Carpenters union has negotiated two-tier deals that pay substantially less for residential work than commercial or government jobs. With no previous challenge, the boss had advertised for help at the residential rate on this nine-figure project.

The Latino workers now depend on a just ruling from the NLRB or the courts—hardly a sure thing. After their strike, the Carpenters union finally showed up a day late and $20 short to pass out union authorization cards—which were signed by nearly all.

Closing ObamaPost Era—While unions are understandably concerned about the Trump administration’s likely attacks on public as well as private-sector workers, few talk about Obama’s ruthless gutting of the U.S. Postal Service. Postal workers cannot legally strike. Obama used compulsory arbitration and executive orders to eliminate and downgrade tens of thousands of USPS jobs. Now, the Letter Carriers are finally getting a chance to vote on a negotiated contract.

It’s described in broad strokes by Mark Gruenberg, writing for the semi-official Press Associates Union News Service: “The 213,000 members of the National Association of Letter Carriers will vote this summer on a new 40-month contract with the U.S. Postal Service, featuring two raises and a pay upgrade for each carrier and for city carrier assistants, a narrower pay gap between CCAs and career carriers, and more opportunities for CCAs to become career carriers.

“On May 12, the union’s executive board unanimously recommended members approve the pact, NALC President Fredric Rolando said. If they do so, NALC will avoid binding interest arbitration. Several postal unions were forced to use that in recent contracts. The recommended NALC pact is retroactive to May 21, 2016, and runs through Sept. 21, 2019.”

Extra-Curricular Activities—Samantha Winslow began a Labor Notes article about teacher involvement in May Day strikes and demonstrations:

“Teachers and their unions turned out for May Day this year in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Oakland, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Seattle. They held teach-ins at schools and pickets outside, and joined citywide demonstrations in solidarity with immigrant communities.

“Philadelphia teachers wanted to show solidarity with the day’s themes—but also make a statement to the city about their own contract struggle. They’ve gone four years without a contract and five years without a raise. They’ve suffered school closings, freezes on steps and lanes in the pay scale, layoffs of school nurses and counselors, and the privatization of substitute teachers. The state-appointed school board even tried to cancel their contract, though it was rebuffed by the courts.

“So, to create pressure on the district, a group of teachers organized their own protest. ‘We are finally taking some action, after five years of not doing much,’ said Tom Quinn, a teacher at the city’s largest high school, where more than half of teachers took a ‘personal day’ on May Day.”

If you have a story suitable for this column please contact billonasch@kclabor.org.

Photo: Unity at AT&T Mobility