BY MITCHEL ROSENBERG AND MICHAEL NEGGIE
NEW YORK - The Communications Workers of America (CWA) phone workers won a victory over Bell Atlantic on August 11, following a two-day strike. The telephone giant caved in to virtually every union demand, and agreed to a two-year contract subject to membership approval. Voting will take place by mail over the next four weeks.
The workers demanded a halt to the company's efforts to increase the use of nonunion labor, enforcement of Bell Atlantic's contractual obligation to provide pension improvements, and hiring temporary workers permanently with full union protection and benefits.
The proposed contract would cover 73,000 CWA members at Bell Atlantic from Maine to Virginia. The previous contract dates back to a four-month strike in 1989 over the company, then NYNEX in New York, demanding workers pay for health benefits. It was extended three times.
The strike coincided with the contract expiration dates at other regional phone carriers. Some 48,000 CWA members at Bell South settled their contract without a strike. Their tentative contract includes a 12.4 percent wage increase over three years, as well as a provision that the company will hire more workers to end massive forced overtime.
As we go to press, 6,500 members of CWA Local 1298 in Connecticut are "on strike alert," having rejected a proposed settlement with Southern New England Telecommunications. The rejected offer would maintain a "two-tier wage system that people are very upset about," according to union steward Mike Petrone. While the rejected proposal narrowed the two-tier setup, it was "not enough" Petrone stated. The Connecticut bargaining committee has been meeting with a federal mediator with negotiations scheduled to begin August 20. The current contract is extended through August 22.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), representing 17,000 Bell Atlantic workers in New England, did not strike but continued to negotiate. According to IBEW Local 2222 President Ed Fitzpatrick, most major issues have been settled. The IBEW represents line workers and operators in New England while customer service and clerical staff are in the CWA.
IBEW members did honor the picket lines of the 2,800 CWA members in New England, though, in locations where both unions are represented, and 1500 IBEW members in upstate New York also stayed out.
Strikers were prepared for battle
Workers in New York are jubilant over the quick strike victory, with a sense of its importance. "The whole thing wasn't just for us but for the future of the workers at Bell Atlantic," said Ron Jackson, celebrating the victory at the company's midtown headquarters. "We got what we wanted, what we came for," added Artie Freer, a computer installer. "You just can't treat people like that anymore," he explained, referring to company attacks over the recent period.
The CWA members were prepared for a battle. For the last year, local-by-local discussions took place to prepare for the possibility of a strike, discussing key issues and getting set to mobilize the ranks.
Commemorating the death of a striker, run over by a scab's car on the picket line during the 1989 strike, CWA members in New York held "red-shirt Thursdays." Over the last six months, more and more workers wore the union colors, with a majority participating by the time of the August 8 strike.
Many members of the union, convinced of the likelihood of a fight, established strike savings. One member of Local 1105 told the Militant she'd participated in a plan by putting aside "$30 or $40 a week, deducted directly to the credit union."
By August 7, with negotiations at an impasse, the CWA organized a two-hour walkout from 3-5pm and held rallies throughout New York City, numbering up to 2,000 at the Pearl St. Bell Atlantic building in lower Manhattan.
At the company's building in Inwood, chants were led by Spanish-speaking workers: "!Arriba, abajo; sin contrato no trabajo!" the chant rang out, answered with the English equivalent, "No contract, no work!"
No one returned to work from the time of the walkout through the official beginning of the strike the next night, according to pickets. Leading up to the strike deadline of midnight August 8, CWA members mobilized at selected locations in New York City. Strike pickets went up over the weekend, and additional rallies were held Monday, August 10.
Pushing back nonunion subcontracting
Among the most important gains won by the union was a provision that nearly all hourly work done for Bell Atlantic and its subsidiaries will be by CWA members. Over the course of the recently expired contract, the company has been opening subsidiaries with the purpose of eroding the union shop. An August 8 New York Times article bluntly noted, "Bell Atlantic has defended using the nonunion subsidiaries, saying it can increase profits by using cheaper, more flexible workers."
One letter of agreement in the settlement returns nonunion operations to union control. For instance, according to the New York Daily News, a Bell Atlantic Plus facility in Hampton, Virginia, will close October 1, with the jobs of the 700 workers there returned to CWA members. Bell Atlantic will retain the ability to move up to 0.5 percent of its work between its northern and southern facilities, and can subcontract the same percentage of work.
In addition, a no-layoff clause continues from the previous contract, and new provisions are proposed for jobs phased out through changes in technology and downsizing.
At Bell Atlantic Mobile, a cellular phone subsidiary that employs 7,100 nonunion workers, no provision has been made to establish a union shop.
Leading up to the expiration of the old contract, the company had refused to honor a contract provision, known as "6&6," under which workers who choose to retire get six years added to their time on the job, as well as six years added to their age for the purpose of calculating their pension. The new proposal extends that provision though 1999 and includes other pension improvements.
Bell Atlantic's standard hiring practice is to bring in workers as temporary for one year. Under the new contract, all temporary workers hired up to May 1 this year were made permanent as of August 11, with a full benefit package.
Hourly pay is increased 3.8 percent as of Aug. 9, 1998, and 4 percent a year later, with additional lump sum payments of $500 at ratification and $400 on the first anniversary.
The contract also contains so-called "service standard" bonuses of up to $700 in the years 2000 and 2001. This incentive pay underlines Bell Atlantic's drive to increase the use of merit pay along the lines its nonunion competitors do.
The two-year term of the contract leaves many CWA members anticipating another fight. With last month's announcement that Bell Atlantic plans to plunk down $52.9 billion in stock to purchase the GTE Corp., many workers think the company may be looking forward to taking another crack at weakening the CWA.
One worker assessed the union movement's strength in light of the recent UAW strike at GM as he rallied at midnight in the Bronx as the strike began: "I think we're in a good position, from a union perspective."
Michael Neggie is a member of CWA Local 1106 at Bell Atlantic in Queens, New York. Megan Arney in Newark and Elena Tate in Boston contributed to this article.
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