Bad Connection At At&T

Work force cuts have ruined once-friendly labor relations

For decades, American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s cooperative labor relations stood out among U. S. employers. Even after the 1984 divestiture thrust it into a harsh competitive environment, AT&T worked hard to help its two unions ease the pain of transition.

However, relations between the two sides since 1989 have soured distressingly as the company keeps shrinking its organized work force and expanding nonunion ranks. Now, the ill feelings have reached a breaking point at AT&T's largest union, the Communications Workers of America. Even though AT&T's labor contract doesn't expire until 1992, the CWA is preparing an attack on the company. Plans include picketing and leafleting AT&T sites around the country, denouncing Chairman Robert E. Allen at the annual stockholders' meeting in Chicago on Apr. 17, and possible local or national work slowdowns or other job actions. "I'm worried about the union's campaign," says William Ketchum, AT&T's vice-president for labor relations.

The frictions at AT&T stem from the extraordinary number of union jobs the company has shed since divestiture, and from Allen's decision in 1989 to restructure AT&T into separate business units. In the 1980s, the CWA accepted some job losses as inevitable. AT&T helped by offering some of the most extensive layoff provisions in the country.

CWA leaders concede that such efforts continue today. But recent layoffs have snapped the patience of union members. They're particularly angry because unionized jobs have plummeted from more than 240,000 in 1984 to some 140,000 today. Meanwhile, new technology and acquisitions have swelled white-collar ranks by nearly 8,000, to 119,000. "There's nothing our locals won't do to demonstrate that they've had it--even strikes, legal or not," says Jim Irvine, the head of the CWA's AT&T division, who says such actions may occur nationwide.

The new business unit organization has heightened CWA members' ire. Much of AT&T's job growth is coming from new ventures and acquisitions in largely unorganized industries such as financial services and computer gear. Under Allen's new policy, AT&T operating units have more leeway to decide strategy. And some don't like unions.

The most striking example involves Paradyne Corp., a modem maker that AT&T acquired two years ago. Its president, John J. Mitcham, has vigorously opposed the CWA's attempt to organize 650 Paradyne workers. In March, Mitcham gave a strident antiunion speech to employees at the company's plant in Largo, Fla. He charged that the CWA had a "plan of destruction" for AT&T and was ruining relations between Paradyne employees and management. "I don't know if there's going to be an election or not," said Mitcham. "But if there is one, vote no. Vote no."

BYGONE DAYS. This kind of talk clearly makes some AT&T executives uncomfortable. Allen promised CWA leaders last fall that AT&T would remain neutral in organizing campaigns. But he hasn't given any guidelines to managers. Ketchum, the labor relations vice-president, says he isn't sure that Mitcham's speech was neutral or even entirely legal. He and the CWA "need to have further discussions on a code of conduct in organizing drives," says Ketchum. "That's not settled yet."

To keep the CWA happy, Allen must rein in gung-ho managers such as Mitcham. But this may make it harder to hold them responsible for any poor results their units show. And with more layoffs on the horizon, the days are gone when AT&T stood hand in hand with labor.

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