Only days after members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) authorized a strike against Atlanta-based BellSouth Corporation (NYSE: BLS), leaders for America’s largest communications and media union struck a deal with the telephone giant.
The strike authorization by nearly 47,000 CWA-represented BellSouth workers covering nine states was spurred by BellSouth’s announcement in June of its strong second-quarter performance. At the same time, BellSouth was increasing dividends to shareholders, who had realized a 42% increase over a 27-month period, the company was cutting employees’ and retirees’ healthcare costs.
“We want BellSouth to be successful,” said CWA spokesperson Candice Johnson. “The company represents our members’ jobs and future, pensions and stock. They just don’t want to have extra costs pushed onto them while the company is doing well.”
Strike or settlement?
CWA District 3 vice president Jimmy Smith reported that about 97% of CWA members voted in favor of a strike authorization by the expiration of their contract at midnight on Aug. 7. The district covers Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
“Before we started bargaining, we had a council of local member participation,” explained Johnson. “In addition to reaching those goals of workers and retirees continuing to have access to high quality and affordable healthcare coverage, pay increases and pension improvements, they wanted an incentive plan based on company profitability.”
On August 7, BellSouth and CWA reached a settlement for a five-year contract that includes an increase in base wages of more than 10.5% over the contract term, pension improvements and a healthcare solution that allows BellSouth to continue providing employees with affordable healthcare coverage. At press time, the ratification vote had not yet been officially set, but is tentatively scheduled for mid- to late- September, said Johnson.
“Overall, I think it’s a very positive agreement, but I can’t second-guess our members,” she said. “We’re providing copies of materials, and we have planned contract explanation meetings to address their concerns.”
‘Not a typical union’
CWA represents more than 700,000 workers in the public and private sectors in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. In Mississippi, the union represents about 7,600 workers, including 3,000 public employees, 2,000 BellSouth employees, 1,500 people in the manufacturing sector, and 1,100 wireless workers. The wireless sector members include about 1,000 Cingular workers in Ocean Springs and a small group of Alltel employees.
“CWA is not a typical union,” explained Johnson. “We’re advocates for members who are more global in nature. We call ourselves the union for the information age. It goes back to the early days of the union in the ‘40s, when technology kept changing and members needed to move on as new jobs were being created and others phased out. I mean, you don’t have 400,000 operators anymore like you did at one time. Yet the core of it is the same: telecom. We have emphasized employment security more than job security so that our members have the skills through training and education to move into the next job technology is creating. That’s the hallmark of our union.”
CWA worked with a local union on the West Coast during the 1990s, when Microsoft retained a significant number of “perma-temps.”
“Perma-temps worked for the company for a long time but were never considered real employees,” said Johnson. “They never had job security or reduced rate stock options. They were often on the payroll for two years or more, working on the same project. Two guys organized a union to do what they could to make conditions better for perma-temps and asked for our assistance.”
The CWA continues to boost job training and education opportunities for its members, explained Johnson.
“For example, we made available for our members an online program with Cisco for certification training to prepare them for the jobs of the future,” she said. “Most of the training is financed on a shared basis. We have a formula for companies based on the number of employees. We work with all the regional Bells. We offer Cisco training through a shared plan with Stanly Community College in Albemarle, N.C., for example. We also have a shared plan with Pace University and some telecom employers to provide access online to a three-year bachelor’s degree in telecom. That solves one of the problems of working people, who are often told their job is going away and they need new skills. When you work all day, and maybe have a family, how can you go to school? This online program helps people get the new skills they need.”
Johnson said she was glad the union was able to help BellSouth workers reach a compromise earlier this month during contract negotiations.
“Nobody wants to go on strike,” she said. “You lose a paycheck. You don’t know what the outcome might be.”
By press time, BellSouth Mississippi had not responded for comment on this article.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.