WASHINGTON-The Communications Workers of America last week launched a full-scale campaign to unionize employees of AirTouch Communications Inc. and acquisition target U S West Cellular, blaming management neglect for “record losses of employees and customers” in a dispute that may be the lightning rod for a broader organized labor effort in the wireless telecom industry.
“Their (the employees’) goal is to take back the company for the customer,” said Andrea de Majewski, a local CWA organizer in Seattle.
CWA leaflets were distributed last week to workers at Bellevue, Wash.-based U S West Cellular-which has marketed itself as AirTouch Cellular since last year in anticipation of a merger-in hopes of securing enough signatures to authorize the union to represent employees in collective bargaining with AirTouch management.
CWA wants a binding contract covering pay, working conditions, training and benefits that is similar to a contract negotiated between the union and U S Communications Inc. U S West Cellular is not covered by the CWA contract with U S West Inc. AirTouch, based in San Francisco, is not unionized either.
CWA said the 10,000-plus AirTouch workers “until now have been powerless to steer the company’s direction to create employee and customer loyalty while making a direct impact on company stock performance.”
Amy Damianakes, an AirTouch spokeswoman, disagrees. “We want our employees to tell us their views,” she said.
Damianakes said that while AirTouch employees are within their federal rights to organize, employees don’t need a union to achieve their objectives. She disputed CWA’s claim that AirTouch has experienced considerable employee and customer turnover, noting that last quarter’s earnings statement cited record- low customer churn.
Damianakes said CWA erred in stating that AirTouch earned 13 cents per share in 1996. The company earned 36 cents per share last year and earned 13 cents per share in the first quarter of 1997, she said.
Damianakes said unions could hurt lean and nimble wireless firms, like AirTouch, competing in a highly competitive environment.
Indeed, it is clear AirTouch does not want its employees having anything to do with unions.
“We oppose representation of our associates by labor unions as being against all our interests,” AirTouch Vice President Ujjal Kohli told employees in a May 19 internal memo.
“Signing a union card is a serious thing,” said Kohli. “Do not sign a union card just to please someone else or get the union organizer to leave you alone. We ask that you not be persuaded to sign a union authorization card because it is `the thing to do.’ We ask that you carefully consider the many benefits of your job that are yours without the need to pay union dues and risk the loss of your pay through strikes, initiation fees, work stoppages, fines and other costs of union membership. We believe that it is in your best interest not to sign a union authorization card.”
A similar memo went out again last Monday from AirTouch’s Julie Berg to U S West NewVector Group Inc. customer service employees. U S West Cellular is a part of the NewVector Group. AirTouch management met privately with managers and supervisors last week to discuss the union issue.
Separately, in a sign that relations between labor and management are getting tense, NewVector Group’s senior attorney wrote de Majewski and threatened to sue CWA for using AirTouch’s logo on CWA leaflets. The attorney said CWA was misrepresenting AirTouch because the logo implied AirTouch was working in cooperation with the union.
De Majewski said U S West Cellular management, reacting to last week’s union organizing, tried to mislead employees last week by telling them they would be hit with a $500 union initiation and that CWA is a for-profit organization. CWA estimates monthly union dues at $30.
Lisa Bowersock, a U S West spokeswoman, said the allegations are not true.
She said initial feedback was that employee interest in CWA was limited.
Tim Ayers, a spokesperson for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, said the trade group does not have a position on unions since some members have union affiliation and some don’t. He said organized labor is a local issue for the wireless industry.
But that could change.
De Majewski said that if the AirTouch-U S West union recruitment effort succeeds there will be efforts to secure broader unions throughout the wireless industry.
It is possible a labor-management dispute at AirTouch could get bogged down for several years if the National Labor Relations Board is brought in.
If AirTouch’s planned purchase of U S West NewVector is approved, AirTouch will be the second largest cellular carrier in the United States, with annual revenues of $4.7 billion.
The wireless telecommunications industry, which has not confronted a major organized labor movement to date, is expected to vigorously resist any serious attempt to unionize carriers.
The AFL-CIO, the nation’s top labor organization with which CWA is affiliated, contributed $35 million to the Clinton-Gore re-election effort and has made no secret of efforts to recruit younger workers from growth industries, like wireless, as traditional union members are laid off by regional Bell telephone companies and the big three long-distance carriers.
The CWA, for example, has aligned itself with consumer advocates regarding alleged health risks of pocket phones and antenna towers.