Our union, The Communications Workers of America, is facing challenges and looking for efficiencies. It was a telecom union. Now it’s an amalgamated union, representing a wide variety of industries and professions. With multiple “tribes,” any effort for efficiency will create tension. A purely political push for efficiency will produce division and anger.
When CWA sought merger partners, it knew it was changing the union. When AT&T was broken up like a puzzle in 1986 (the districts are the pieces) there was great concern for the future. Like any parent union, CWA expected it would absorb new partners into the ongoing operation. There was – and is – an assumption that geographic districts are the right way to run a union.
The merger partners came in with merger agreements that have been kept sacrosanct. Only the members of these sectors can modify merger agreements. Over the years, the Printing, Publishing, Media Workers Sector (PPMWS) amended their agreement, and recently its leadership entered into a negotiation to end the sector. This was based on the reality of having only 3,000 members: 2,000 active members and 1,000 retirees.
There are some sectors that don’t have protection through merger agreements, like T&T (Telecom and Tech) and the Public Sector. T&T includes Frontier Communications and the remaining portion of the Bell manufacturing division. The Public Sector has long had a VP and office, with a very small staff. These two sectors can be changed without member consent by the convention. Even this will cause great concern and tension.
For some time, there has also been a pressure within Telecom to treat it as more of a sector. Currently there is little coordination among Districts representing telecom workers, even when those districts are bargaining with the same employer, like AT&T. Some efforts are made, and the CWA Constitution requires that there be consultation in those bargaining situations, but nothing more.
Sector leadership believes that industrial identity matters. We understand that new members organize into the union because they want to be part of a group of people like them. We negotiate better contracts when we work with others bargaining similar contracts. That’s why we fight to maintain sectors and a brand identity within CWA.
The argument for operating CWA as efficiently as possible is a good one. With fewer members in the union, we have less money and fewer resources. We need to use those resources efficiently in order to maintain good contracts, gain more members and build the movement. How we do it is the question.
I have argued that the union should conduct a strategic study done by an outside and objective group to help make the change based on facts, not pure political muscle. CWA has done this several times, as has the Guild and other merger partners.
A strategic study would help the union gather all the necessary facts and information it needs to create a fair plan for a sustainable future. It would help to generate new ideas and solutions. It would also require time and money, but change done this way is much more readily accepted because folks don’t feel jammed into solutions they had no role in creating.
There is a tension already built into having two different systems – one for the geographic districts and one for the industrial sectors. I’m guessing a study would call for fewer sectors and fewer districts. And I think there are legitimate ways to get there without losing industrial identity or geographic efficiency. Unfortunately, as of right now, there is no support on the CWA Executive Board for a study, but there may be an attempt at the July convention to legislate some structural changes, without the sort of deliberation I believe is necessary. If that happens, it’s likely everyone will regret it later.
There are better ways to create efficiencies and position ourselves for a more secure future.
Re-elect Bernie Lunzer as President of The NewsGuild sector of CWA so we can keep building the Guild.