Labor Gains?

"City and state, please?"

For a moment I think the voice at the other end of the phone belongs to a telephone operator, but I've been conned: I'm talking to a piece of voice-recognition technology.

Over the course of the last two decades, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) has seen the loss of thousands of telephone operators' jobs and many others, too. Some were due to automation, others to offshoring, but most were the result of structural changes in the industry. After AT&T's 1984 divestment of its 22 regional telephone companies, the CWA, together with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, represented 150,000 of the company's workers. This year, when a much smaller AT&T was purchased by SBC Communications, the union represented only 25,000. All told, the CWA estimates, about 250,000 telecommunications jobs have been lost over the past 25 years.

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Staggering results like these have devastated some unions, but not the CWA. In fact, it's flourishing. Since the 1985 breakup of the Bell System, CWA membership has soared from 580,000 to 700,000. What was once a union of telephone-company employees has been transformed into a "union for the information age" representing workers in industries from publishing to health care.

A principal engineer of this metamorphosis is Larry Cohen, who, with the retirement of Morton Bahr in August, was elected the union's new president. Cohen is often described as one of the best strategists in the labor movement. He is also one of its most intense. At 56, Cohen is lean, driven, and speaks with the authority of a delicatessen owner presiding over the lunchtime rush -- not rude, but direct and to the point. And the point he emphasizes is that the future of the American labor movement hinges on democracy.

"Unions work best when they're organized from the workplace up, not the top down," Cohen said in an interview. "Unions sometimes lose sight of what we are, which is a workplace organization where anybody who works for the union -- no matter whether it's the president or the director of this or that -- works for the stewards." Cohen's zeal for the grass roots has been a constant throughout his more than 25 years in the CWA, during which time he's helped organize more than 175,000 new members. In 1998 he was elected the union's executive vice president. His message? Not only is the CWA strong and democratic; it's strong because it's democratic.

The late Charles Larrowe, biographer of the militant West Coast longshoreman's union leader Harry Bridges, once said, borrowing the phrase originated by Robert Michels, that U.S. unions were guided by an "iron law of oligarchy." By the time labor leaders make it to the top of their organization, Larrowe said, they have grown to distrust rank-and-file activism and to be fearful of dissent. With Cohen it seems the opposite is true. In 1988, he crafted the CWA's mobilization program, an effort that enlisted thousands of rank-and-file union members in a protest campaign that successfully pressured the regional Bell System in 1989 contract talks. He also helped launched Jobs with Justice, a network of grass-roots activist coalitions now operating in 29 states.

This grass-roots culture is reflected in the union's history as well. From its beginnings in the 1930s as an alliance of 31 separate telephone-workers organizations, the CWA grew as much by merging with small, independent unions of telephone workers as it did by organizing. The upshot, Cohen believes, is that even as the CWA expanded, it retained the culture of these smaller unions and, with it, a sense of being more directly accountable to its members. Rachel Padgett, executive director of the New York–based Association for Union Democracy -- a group that routinely charges many labor leaders with quashing internal dissent -- ranks the CWA as one of the most democratic anywhere.

Cohen's grass-roots focus is a sharp departure from the complex debate over the AFL-CIO's functions and finances that rocked the labor federation last summer. In that debate, a group of unions, organized under the banner of the Change to Win coalition, argued that unions must be consolidated and compelled by the AFL-CIO to organize within their jurisdictions. Though Cohen is demure in describing his role in organized labor's smackdown, he, together with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' Paul Booth, are often singled out for offering the most penetrating critique of that position. Cohen dismissed the claim that structural changes within the AFL-CIO would spur union growth. "In CWA, we think that the issue is the virtual elimination of collective-bargaining rights and the linkage between those rights and any modern democracy," he explained in The Nation magazine. "The primary crisis is not about union membership. The crisis is about American workers' right to join and build unions."

Cohen, who backed federation President John Sweeney's re-election, now represents the CWA on the AFL-CIO Executive Council, where he will undoubtedly be the most vocal backer of the federation's campaign for labor-law reforms. His will also be a particularly influential voice given the CWA's new importance within the smaller AFL-CIO that emerged from this summer's controversy.

Among Cohen's successes are efforts -- made possible, supporters say, by the CWA's small-union culture -- to win the support of workers who might otherwise be ambivalent about joining a union of telecommunications workers. They include a broad cross section of the American workforce -- professional employees of the University of California, hospital workers in New York, state employees in Mississippi, and technicians at Comcast in Texas. Last year, the 46,000–member Association of Flight Attendants merged with the CWA.

With Cohen's support, the CWA is also attempting to organize new industries. In 1998 the union joined forces with the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, an energetic grass-roots organization of Microsoft workers. Now chartered as a CWA local, WashTech is spearheading Techs Unite, a new advocacy organization that could become a model for organizing high-tech workers. The CWA has also been backing Alliance@IBM, an unusual initiative that uses the Internet to bring IBM's far-flung workers together in what amounts to a virtual union hall.

But the CWA's most important battle is to keep up with the constant upheaval in the telecommunications industry. To do so, Cohen and others have used contract negotiations to press employers for neutrality agreements to prevent employer meddling in union organizing drives and "card check" recognition, a process that enables workers to demonstrate their support for the union without the long delays and red tape of a vote supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. The results have been encouraging. For example, after winning such an agreement from Cingular Inc. this summer, the CWA organized 4,000 workers at AT&T Wireless, which had recently been acquired by Cingular.

Cohen is convinced, though, that if the CWA is going to maintain and expand its strength in the telecom industry, it will need to take its fight overseas. He points out, for example, that the fiercely anti-union T-Mobile is owned by Deutsche Telekom, whose workers have long been represented by the CWA's German counterpart. He thinks part of the solution is the Union Network International (UNI), a global federation of 900 unions representing 15 million workers worldwide. Cohen, who heads up UNI's telecom division, is leading a multinational effort by UNI members to press the German firm to curb union opposition by T-Mobile and other Deutsche Telecom subsidiaries. "Company executives have even acknowledged that they couldn't get away with this kind of behavior back in Germany," said Cohen.

At a time when many in the union movement are anxiously looking for new, unorthodox tactics that can turn organized labor's fortunes around, Larry Cohen is a fundamentalist who is convinced that the best strategy is also the most basic: democracy, rank-and-file activism, and labor unity, both at home and abroad. Now, as the CWA's president, he intends to prove it works.

Jim Grossfeld is a writer and a former communications director at the United Mine Workers of America. He is leading a research project exploring attitudes toward workplace organization among professionals and technical employees.

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