On the Virtual Picket Line | The Nation


On the Virtual Picket Line

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The unfortunate flaw in From the Telegraph to the Internet is its title, which suggests a highly specialized account of an industry when in fact it is a deeply moving narrative of a committed labor leader who has written a compelling autobiography about what it means to fill various roles (labor leader, visionary, father, politician and negotiator) at a time of tumultuous change in American technology and corporate restructuring. This book should be required reading in education programs at labor institutes, universities and especially business schools, so that its readers may gain insight into the present-day struggles, tactics and organizing purposes of a US labor union. Morton Bahr, president of the Communications Workers of America, discusses how the union coped when AT&T was broken apart by court order and how the CWA, which had its origins in a company union that had virtually no role or say in the changes that affected hundreds of thousands of workers, was militant enough to elbow its way into sufficiently protecting workers' benefits and status.

About the Author

Marcus G. Raskin
Marcus G. Raskin, a Nation editorial board member, is the author of more than twenty books and the editor, with Gregory...

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Then the union began the difficult job of creating a vibrant new entity for information service workers, who would fit into new patterns of competitive business while reinforcing the principle that the CWA was an international union. What Bahr has sought with some success is to find a way of cooperating with business while maintaining labor's separate and distinct voice. This is no easy matter and one that requires great subtlety in advancing the cause of workers in labor-corporate relations. Whatever unions hope to achieve for their members and society, they must expand their base through organizing and identifying the causes of the labor movement with community interests.

Now Bahr has a new job as AT&T seeks communications hegemony. Like the mythological snake that is cut apart but then reforms itself, the "re-merging" and new acquisitions of AT&T are intended, in the words of the May 6 New York Times, to achieve dominance in "the communications landscape unmatched by any company since the old American Telephone and Telegraph broke up under government pressure in 1984." The inclusion of the cable TV industry is intended to integrate various communications services to consumers.

But where is organized labor in this story? Is it a partner, antagonist or bystander? As Bahr points out, organized labor is already marginalized. Unless it responds by building bigger unions, workers will be reduced to commodities without voice in the Brave New World of the twenty-first century. The CWA has expanded to public service workers, technical workers and professional workers in governmenrt. But its success will stand or fall on the basis of how it is able to adjust to and cause changes in the communications industry. "Contracts covering the vast majority of our membership," Bahr points out, "now provide for joint discussion of the impact of new technology, as well as training and retraining opportunities." Rather than wait for collective bargaining agreements to expire, unions and companies should have the capacity to adjust wages and profit sharing during the life of a collective bargaining agreement--an idea predicated on the actual strength of the union at the grass roots. The CWA already tested that in 1992, when it called for an "electronic picket line" against AT&T. It urged its members to switch carriers and organized other unions to boycott AT&T services, as well as immensely profitable caller ID and call waiting services at the local level--an effective strategy in a competitive market. Can the CWA now have any say in the production, allocation of resources and likely layoffs as AT&T seeks efficiencies? Will any vision be large enough and conscious enough of itself and the national community to offer alternatives to be heard above the din of clichés regarding "competition"?

As I read Bahr's account I could not help but wonder where labor leaders fit into the folklore of American life. For Americans outside the labor movement, labor leaders are thought of as square pegs in round holes, not quite fitting the story of Capitalist Realism--namely, that the nation's gains and prosperity came from the immaculate conception of the Founding Fathers, who anointed businessmen as their disciples. To doubt this story is to enter into a far more densely textured view of American history, one integrally tied to organized labor and its leaders. This view requires consideration of the struggles of freestanding labor unions, which in turn raises deep questions about social and economic organization, capitalism, class conflict, class collaboration versus business-labor cooperation, the role of government, electoral politics and the courage and charisma of labor leaders.

These questions have not been easy for the labor movement to confront internally, torn as it has been at different times between the industrial and craft unions, the left and right, issues of international solidarity versus patriotism, and shrinking memberships within the shift to a service economy. In the US context such issues have not been made easy, given the lack of a major political party to present the needs of workers consistently. Even the most naïve among us cannot fail to notice that the two political parties adhere to one business ideology: The personal ambitions of Republicans and Democrats may not coincide, but the views of the parties have been virtually consonant in limiting labor's rights, keeping its role as sotto voce as possible. Thus in recent years the Democratic Party of Carter and Clinton has been supportive of blatantly business-oriented ideas such as bipartisan agreements on export capitalism. The "early" Bill Clinton took a leaf from the anti-union stance of Ronald Reagan. Coming from an anti-union, right-to-work state, Clinton kept the story of Capitalist Realism going, emphasizing world trade and global competition fueled by individual consumer desire in the marketplace, with workers left virtually without protection.

In this framework, labor unions retained the aura of illegitimacy, not to be mentioned in speeches and ill considered in polite company or where major policy questions were to be thrashed out. Bahr makes this point in a telling way by gently upbraiding former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who by the estimate of many was a progressive-minded secretary. It took Reich three years to mention the word "union" in public and then only at a meeting in Geneva of the International Labor Organization. As Bahr notes more out of sorrow than controlled anger, "Every other Cabinet secretary can advance the cause of their constituencies. It is perfectly all right for the Department of Commerce to carry water for corporate America. The Secretary of Veteran Affairs is unashamedly 'pro-veteran.' The Secretary of Education is never blamed for being 'pro-education.' But for some reason the Labor Department cannot be seen as being 'pro-labor.'"

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