CWA takes sober look at labor’s challenges

WASHINGTON (PAI)–Saying labor’s current struggle “is not hopeless, just hard,” Communications Workers President Larry Cohen laid out a long list of challenges his union and the rest of the movement face in the months and years ahead.

From declining numbers due to the Great Recession to lack of labor unity, from Senate GOP filibusters bringing government to a halt to the apparent death — for that very reason — of the Employee Free Choice Act, Cohen warned his union convention’s delegates they and other unionists have a hard row to hoe.

CWA took time out from politics and organizing to pass a resolution demanding withdrawal of U.S. troops and contractors from both Iraq and Afghanistan. The measure, pushed by U.S. Labor Against War, won by a majority show of hands. But delegates spent the rest of their time on U.S. politics and CWA internal business.

“The current situation for our union is serious and urgent,” Cohen explained. “The U.S. labor movement remains locked in a downward spiral…with falling membership, nearly all defense in bargaining, organizing rights near the bottom of the 20 largest world economies, falling real wages in the U.S. for nearly 40 years, and a political system at the federal level that is all but paralyzed, despite the 2008 election results,” he said in his keynote address on July 26 in Washington.

By contrast, he added, “Corporate power measured in every way is at an all-time high. The wage gap between management and front-line workers in the U.S. is up to 500 times and accepted by most. The political power of the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable has never been greater, with total control on economic issues in the Republican Party and huge influence among nearly all Democrats as well.

And while Cohen contended “there remains a significant difference, well worth voting for,” between the two political parties, he admitted labor is often on its own, without help from politicians.

“There is no path right now for any relief in bargaining and organizing rights and economic reform has been minimal,” he said.

To combat those problems, Cohen laid out a number of initiatives the 1,000-plus delegates endorsed. They included:

  • A political campaign focus to kill the Senate filibuster, which the 41-member Senate GOP minority now uses to block virtually everything from major legislation — like EFCA — down to presidential appointments.
  • Creation of new national and international coalitions for labor’s causes. With only 7% of the private workforce, “labor alone cannot move our agenda,” Cohen said.

CWA’s partners for progressive causes include the NAACP, the Sierra Club, the Blue-Green Alliance and the “One Nation” coalition that is organizing a mass political march on Washington on Oct. 2, followed by a month of intensive political campaigning.

“As important as that will be, in demonstrating that we can mobilize far better than Tea Party and Right Wingers, for us, ‘One Nation’ is a reset of our political agenda and key partners for change,” he explained.

Cohen also singled out CWA’s international partner, the 2-million-member German telecom union ver.di. Ver.di represents Deutsche Telekom (DT) workers.  German law gives it seats on the firm’s board, along with mandatory joint labor-management meetings to hash out issues. DT’s biggest foreign subsidiary is T-Mobile in the U.S., where CWA has been campaigning to organize thousands of workers.

T-Mobile is using classic U.S. anti-worker tactics, including labor law-breaking, to thwart the campaign.  So CWA and ver.di formed a joint union for the T-Mobile workers, and ver.di is putting pressure on DT to change T-Mobile’s stance. Two ver.di leaders and a T-Mobile worker from New Jersey later addressed the delegates.

There are some bright spots for labor, and Cohen highlighted them, including Obama administration officials at the Labor Department are increasing enforcement of wage and hour and health and safety laws.

Obama’s appointees to the National Mediation Board — which oversees labor-management relations at airlines and railroads — resulted in a new ruling by the board that unions need only win a majority of ballots cast, not an absolute majority of all voters, to represent workers at a firm.

That ruling, he said, opened the way for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA to again try to organize the 20,000 flight attendants at “New Delta.”

New Delta is the combined airline created when red-state anti-union Delta swallowed wall-to-wall-union blue-state Northwest.

At Northwest, AFA represented 7,000 Northwest flight attendants.

Cohen confidently predicted that with an election in coming months — NMB has yet to set a date — AFA-CWA would represent all New Delta flight attendants within a year.

“We also filed for 3,000 customer service workers at Piedmont and 20,000 other customer service workers are organizing at American and American Eagle — all of this possible just with the rule change” supported by Obama-named NMB members, including former AFA President Linda Puchala, Cohen pointed out.

Besides the anti-war resolution, the convention also:

  • Approved a 2010-2011 budget and starting after the 2011 convention CWA will hold conventions every other year, instead of yearly.
  • Blasted the Red Cross’ anti-union stand. The non-profit demands pay and benefit cuts from its CWA, UFCW, OPEIU, AFSCME and SEIU member-workers. CWA asked its locals to contact United Way area affiliates, since the Red Cross is a big beneficiary of United Way funds, “and request they contact ARC to demand” it “respect the collective bargaining process, consistent with United Way policy.”
  • Criticized the attack on public employees and their pensions

The Iraq-Afghanistan withdrawal resolution linked the wars together and demanded redirection of money spent on them to domestic needs, including care for returning injured and wounded troops.

One delegate, an Air Force veteran who recently returned from Afghanistan, opposed it, and two other delegates spoke for it.

Photo: CWA delegates at the 72nd Convention. (CWA)



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.