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CWA’s Strike Culture


I was interviewed for a really great story at The American Prospect about a topic I hadn’t actually thought about too much before this: the Communication Workers of America’s culture of striking, even during the dark ages of the strike between the late 80s and about 2016, during which most unions were afraid to strike. CWA never was and in fact, the CWA strikes against AT&T and Verizon really did keep the tactic alive, which has influenced the strike wave of the last couple of years. It’s also interesting in that SEIU, AFSCME, AFT, UNITE-HERE, etc. get all the attention and hardly anyone ever really talks about CWA as a national union leader. But it very much is. Anyway, here’s a couple of excerpts and check the whole thing out.

Wearing red is not just a way that CWA honors Horgan’s legacy. It’s a way CWA builds solidarity—and succeeds in their strikes. Unlike most other unions over the past 30 years, CWA has continued to strike regularly and—for the most part—it’s continued to win. From 1980 to 2017, the total number of strikes in the United States fell by a full 95 percent. In fact, despite a bump in the late 1960s and early 1970s, strikes have fallen since the 1940s. During the 2010s, the number of strikes each year actually declined to single digits. And yet CWA continued to launch major strikes, and to make gains.

They’re not just small strikes, either. In 1983, 700,000 workers struck against the Bell System for 22 days. In 1986, CWA struck again for 26 days. 1989 brought with it the NYNEX strike, with a settlement for 175,000 workers. In 1992 and 1995, the union mobilized “coordinated inside tactics” by its members and strike-like tactics such as sick-outs and refusing overtime. Three years later, CWA struck for 41 days against the privatization of the Puerto Rico telephone company. In 2000, 87,000 workers struck against Verizon. In 2011, 45,000 CWA members struck against Verizon again, and yet again in 2016—when Senator Bernie Sanders joined them on the picket line.

“There was this handing down of the tradition of militancy,” says Bob Master, a veteran CWA leader in its Northeastern region (District 1). The strikes of 1971, 1989, and 2016, he says, are defining events for each successive generation of CWA members.

Initially, CWA did have one particular advantage compared with other private-sector unions. When CWA was established, the telecommunications industry was largely a one-firm monopoly, which made it easier for members to bargain because their employer had no major competitors. This changed with a 1984 antitrust decision that broke up the Bell System into seven regional companies (“Baby Bells”) and later with the rise of non-union wireless companies. But even this didn’t stop CWA from striking, which points to something else as the root of CWA’s strike culture.

Striking this often, in such large numbers, and managing to win gains in an era of worker defeats, has given CWA something of a “unicorn” status. To win that status, to continue to use the strike as a tool that works, the union has developed a permanent, comprehensive system of preparation and readiness.

CWA President Chris Shelton says that he hadn’t thought about CWA as “a unicorn, but that might be an apt description.”

CWA’s victory in ’71 was emblematic of how the union bargains for strategic advantage, something that will give it an edge in future negotiations. Indeed, the late 1960s and the early 1970s were a moment of innovation for American unions, says labor historian Lane Windham, of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. Beginning with General Electric workers in 1966, unions were considering expanding their bargaining with management to encompass all workers in their industry or sector. “There was this huge vision in the movement for ‘Can we actually bargain sectorally,’” Windham says, “‘even begin to bargain for things beyond what we traditionally bargained for?’” Labor historian Erik Loomis, who’s authored a book on strikes, also points to labor’s expansive agenda during this time. Unions, he notes, aggressively pushed for environmental reforms in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

CWA’s strike in 1971 was “part of this aspirational moment,” Windham says. But the economic downturn and dramatic reorganization of the American economy that began in 1973 brought this moment to an end. Facing competition from the newly resurgent economies of Germany and Japan, companies began taking a much harder line toward unions, leading to what Windham calls a “massive union-busting offensive.”

The burgeoning anti-union sentiment in the 1970s culminated in the 1981 PATCO strike, when President Ronald Reagan fired the more than 11,000 air-traffic controllers who’d struck for better working conditions. Reagan’s action gave tacit approval to private companies to engage in the same union-busting tactics. Before the PATCO strike, employers discouraged unions from striking. After PATCO, many corporations baited unions into striking and subsequently busted them.

As the number of major strike actions yearly fell from 300 or more to single digits, unions looked to other tactics to win contractual gains. CWA did this, too. But CWA also kept striking.

“CWA has played a unique role in keeping strike culture alive in the American labor movement,” says labor historian Joseph McCartin, author of a volume on the PATCO strike and its aftermath, and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. “And that dates back almost to the immediate aftermath of PATCO,” he continues, referencing CWA’s 1983 strike against the Bell System. “That sent a message that this union wasn’t afraid to fight at a time when other unions were taking a whipping in strikes.” To keep striking, the union needed to build a massive mobilization apparatus and a rock-solid culture of solidarity.

Steve Early, a former CWA organizer, says that means involving members in “escalating activity.” You start small, says Matt Wood, president of CWA Local 3411 in Louisiana, with, for example, everyone standing up together in a call center at 3 p.m. and counting who’s standing, or by wearing red on Thursdays. It builds trust, and helps members be ready to strike. It helps members know “who’s really ready to be down,” Wood says.

Former CWA President Larry Cohen says that the mobilization program has been a major part of the union’s strike strategy since 1987. Ideally, there’s one mobilizer for every ten members. “The mobilizers are absolutely the center of the whole thing,” says Cohen.

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