The largest communications union is eyeing AT&T's
newest partner, Tele-Communications Inc., with rapt interest.
AT&T Corp.'s announced merger with TCI, and
AT&T's contract with the 600,000-member Communications Workers of America, could
point to a shift toward unionized labor for TCI as early as next year, when the AT&T
and TCI merger is expected to close.
CWA already counts more than 1,000 employers, including
AT&T, the regional Bell telephone companies, GTE Corp., NBC and ABC television
networks, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the state of New Jersey and leading newspapers.
"We've already met with AT&T," said Jim
Irvine, vice president of communications and technologies for CWA. "We talked with
them about the things we can bring to the table to help them make sure their marketable
brand name doesn't get diminished.
"I think we had a good talk about the value we can
bring as workers -- the importance of things like training and some of our experiences
with TCI," he added.
Tele-Communications Inc. spokeswoman LaRae Marsik said
she's aware of those conversations, and largely neutral on the issue.
"I hate to sound like a bumper sticker, but the truth
is that we've always been and we will remain pro-choice when it comes to unionized
labor," Marsik said.
Irvine expressed confidence in the pending union effort in
a cable industry that has historically fought such moves. He said CWA has been contacted
by many TCI workers, both past and present. And he believes the union's record in
supporting employees' professional goals will strike a chord with TCI workers.
"I think successful companies in the future are going
to have employees who are turned on to what's going on and are well-trained," he
Plus, a newly inked election process that does not require
approval from the National Labor Relations Board for union recognition paves the way for a
unionization process that includes any acquisitions AT&T makes, he said.
AT&T's current contract with CWA contains specific
ground rules about how AT&T and the union will interact during union recruitment
efforts in acquired companies, Irvine said.
The new contract "will allow us the opportunity to do
organizing without the management trying to kill the union," Irvine said, explaining
that the current CWA/AT&T arrangement sets value statements between the two firms.
"So we couldn't say, for instance, 'John
Malone is making a lot of money on this thing and you're getting screwed and
he's getting all the cream,'" he said.
Instead, CWA can talk to TCI employees about its
accomplishments, bargaining processes, grievance procedures and dues -- the kinds of
things a union brings to its members, he said.
Irvine called the arrangement a "very neutral way to
At the same time, AT&T and its acquired companies, like
TCI, cannot hire anti-union consultants or law firms to fight the union.
"That's not something we would do anyway,"
TCI's Marsik said. "As it currently exists, and as it will be going forward,
TCI's employees will continue to have information available to them so they can make
an informed decision about whether to participate in a union or not."
Marsik ceded that very few of TCI's systems are
currently organized within a unionized labor structure.
Irvine described CWA's relationship with AT&T as
"good," despite a recently concluded bargaining period where a "rich buyout
in the pension to the managers" slashed the contract's approval margin by nearly
20 percent (approximately 55 percent versus a usual 75 percent approval). He noted that
there was an AT&T strike in 1983, followed by a month-long strike in 1986.
But, said Irvine, the union has evolved since then.
"We're a union that in the past had a mantra of
'no contract, no work.' But we changed that about 10 years ago and said we
would, if need be, work past the termination date of a contract."
He described CWA as a union that is not anxious to strike,
but also not afraid to strike.
"We have an extremely rich strike fund, more than $260
million, and we pay members money every week while they're on strike."
Mike Lafferty is a senior editor at CED Magazine.