Wireless Workers Get Connected

Labor is targeting telecom's growth businesses

Ever since AT&T broke up in 1984, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) has been slowly losing its grip on the telecommunications industry. The union made few inroads among workers at long-distance rivals MCI Communications Corp. and Sprint Corp. And it failed to organize new workers as AT&T and the Baby Bells expanded into wireless and Internet services, which are expected to double in size over the next five years. It looked like the Information Superhighway would be strictly nonunion.

Now, the union's fortunes may be changing. In March, after a seven-year campaign, SBC Communications Inc.'s Southwestern Bell Co. agreed to give the CWA a free hand to sign up 3,000 wireless and Internet workers in Texas and four nearby states. In April, the union penned a similar deal for 2,000 employees at SBC's newly acquired Pacific Telesis Group. Because SBC has agreed to forgo what may be contentious union elections, the CWA is likely to enlist most of the 5,000 workers, giving it a key foothold in the nation's 84,000-strong mobile-phone workforce (table). The CWA is cranking up similar drives at other wireless employers, including AT&T and AirTouch Communications Inc. SBC declined to comment on its move.

PROFITS. Unionization could trigger big changes in the telecom industry. Many wireless and Internet technicians and service workers earn 30% to 50% less than the $25,000 to $45,000 a year made by unionized phone workers doing similar jobs, CWA officials say. They vow to close the gap at SBC and other companies they organize, which would jack up industry costs. Unionizing telecom's growth areas also would block AT&T and other phone companies from demanding that traditional phone workers match mobile-phone workers' lower wage scales. "Wireless requires a lot of capital investment, and there's also pressure to lower prices," says Mark Lowenstein, the head of wireless research at Yankee Group Inc., a Boston consulting firm. "Unionization would eat into profits."

It took the CWA years of pressure to make its breakthrough at SBC. The union mounted five mobile-phone elections in Missouri and Texas in the mid-1990s. But it lost two after company officials did everything from holding individual meetings with workers to turn them against the union to catering spaghetti lunches before elections. The heated campaign led the CWA to adopt a strategy that's being used increasingly by unions: Pressure companies to remain neutral in union drives. The CWA also insisted the SBC agree to skip elections and recognize the union when a majority of workers sign up.

The CWA mobilized hundreds of traditional phone workers at Southwestern Bell to press its case. They visited mobile workers and discussed their lower pay rates, picketed company locations, and demanded SBC's neutrality at virtually every meeting with management. Union members also picketed local stores that sell mobile-phone service on Southwestern Bell's behalf, telling customers about the company's hard-nosed opposition to their demands. And members started digging into Southwestern Bell's mobile-phone broadcast towers to see if they violated stringent federal safety codes. "We didn't file complaints, but we would have if SBC hadn't gone along with our demands," says Danny Fetonte, a CWA organizer in Texas.

The union also tried to show SBC that it could be a powerful ally. When Texas and Missouri legislatures were weighing votes on telecom deregulation laws that pitted the regional Bell companies against long-distance carriers and cable operators, the union swung into action on behalf of SBC. It turned out 5,000 members for demonstrations in Austin and used its considerable lobbying clout in Texas, where it has 50,000 members, including 10,000 state employees, to swing legislators toward the Baby Bell.

The CWA still faces plenty of resistance at other wireless companies. In 1995, AT&T agreed not to fight unionization at its new subsidiaries. But anti-union managers at its wireless unit, the former McCaw Cellular Communications Inc., kicked up such a fuss that AT&T excluded it from the agreement. The CWA will try again when its AT&T contract expires in 1998. "We're expecting another battle," says an AT&T official. If the union can repeat its SBC victory, it may yet play a role in telecom's future.

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