The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The AT&T Strike:
The Unions Led a Strike, but Not a Fight

Oct 31, 1983

After a three-week strike in August, workers at AT&T accepted a new contract. Glenn Watts, president of the CWA (Communications Workers of America), which represents most of the workers involved, managed to call it a “victory” in light of various circumstances. It’s true, the settlement did not give AT&T every single concession it had demanded before the strike. Nevertheless, facing the richest company in the world, the outcome for the unions – which also include, among others, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Telecommunications International Union – was a concession contract.

The Concessions

Perhaps the most dramatic of the concessions in the contract is the unions’ acceptance of the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. AT&T anticipates eliminating 300,000 jobs in the near future, wiping out forty per cent of the work force. The company justifies this attack in terms of the rapid technological innovations in the telecommunications industry. Most of this job loss is expected to be accomplished when AT&T is legally restructured in January 1984 into seven regional holding companies, plus the newly streamlined AT&T.

In the past, AT&T has had the practice of affecting work force reductions mainly through attrition rather than layoffs. But the new contract has several sections specifically dealing with layoffs and “involuntary reassignments”, mostly related to technological change, which take as their premise the company’s right to eliminate jobs. The few compensatory payments introduced are token, at best. For example, the contract provides that, if a worker is laid off due to what the company defines as a technological innovation, the worker can be reimbursed up to 2500 dollars for money spent on a re-training program. But the worker must first advance the money for re-training (while unemployed); the compensation is for tuition only, not living expenses; and, in any case, re-training does not automatically translate into a job, particularly in this period of high unemployment.

The CWA pointed out (in relation to wage negotiations) that Bell workers’ productivity had increased seven per cent last year. In fact, although the CWA doesn’t say it, it is precisely that spectacular increase in productivity that helps to account for the massive layoffs. But while the CWA acknowledges workers’ productivity, it makes no effort to oppose the unemployment which is its result. For the corporations, this may be the most important aspect of the negotiations. In general, the bourgeoisie is concerned to try to get out of the economic crisis by imposing on the working class an intensification of work and reduction of the work force, which means driving more and more workers into the ranks of the permanently unemployed.

The unions said that they won a wage increase: 5.5 per cent in the first year (in fact less for some workers) and 1.5 per cent in the second and third years. This could be construed as a victory only in comparison to the company’s initial proposal of 3.5 per cent in the first year and nothing in the second or third. In fact this wage increase is not a wage increase when we see that the new contract cancels COLA payments until the second year of the new contact. In the period for which there has been and will be no COLA, even the government’s optimistic predictions show the Consumer Price Index will increase a minimum of 8-10 per cent in that time. This means that even the total wage increase of 8.5 per cent will in all likelihood not keep up with the inflation and loss of COLA.

The unions agreed with the demand to control medical expenses. Some adjustments were made in the Medical Expense Plan, including the elimination of reimbursement for hospitalization for weekends on which non-emergency patients are admitted. But most of the precise details of how it would be done were deferred to be worked out in the coming months.

Temporarily transferring employees to different regions of the country is a common practice at AT&T. The new agreement removes some restrictions on the company’s practices. In many cases, transferred employees are now immediately treated as local employees in their new area. This means that time limits on “temporary” transfer are removed. Also, the company can now legally transfer someone else, from another area, into the transferred employee’s previous job at any time, which had not been sanctioned in the past, even if it happened.

In addition, local contracts containing many points on work rules and conditions were pushed through after three weeks of the strike; only since then have the workers seen what they mean. In several cities, for example, operators on late shifts will no longer receive taxi fare to facilitate safe travel; split shifts, which had been eliminated, were reinstated; and shift differential for later shifts was eliminated.

The Rationale for Concessions

The bourgeoisie has been demanding major concessions from the workers for about four years, the first conspicuous case being that of Chrysler. In general, the underlying assumption behind the argument for concessions has been that the interests of the workers are tied to those of the bosses: the workers cannot prosper if their employers do not prosper; so the workers must make sacrifices when the company is in trouble. (Obviously, the concomitant of this argument should be that when the company does achieve success, the workers should share in that prosperity.) The workers must bite the bullet and wait for their reward – this has been the theme song of this period of crisis.

But the AT&T contract demonstrates clearly that this propaganda is sheer nonsense. AT&T is in fine financial health, repeatedly making the biggest profits of any company in the world, 7.2 billion dollars last year. It also ranks number one in assets and number two in sales and stock market value among American corporations. Yet this company still took concessions. The argument that the interests of the workers rise and fall with those of the bourgeoisie is exposed as a lie by AT&T’s attack against the workers.

In fact, the example of Chrysler shows the same thing. Four years ago, the company, with government support, said to the workers, “We must all make sacrifices to get a government loan to save the company from bankruptcy.” Chrysler demanded and got big wage cuts and other concessions.

Today, after a series of concessions agreements, Chrysler has recovered, to say the least. In the first nine months of 1983, Chrysler made more profits, 583 million dollars, than in any full year in its history. On top of this, it has been able in the same period to pay back 1.2 billion dollars in government-backed loans, 900 million of it in advance of when it was due. If the workers’ well-being really were tied to that of the bosses, it would seem that Chrysler could begin now to repay the workers for their sacrifices.

But instead, under the latest contract, signed in September, the biggest part of the concessions were extended for another two years. All talk of paying back the other concessions was forgotten as idle chatter. The biggest concession of all wasn’t even mentioned, but it was shown by the fact that when these latest contract papers were signed, they covered 66,000 U.S. and Canadian workers, compared to 124,000 when the first concession contract was signed. Almost half of the workers who began to give sacrifices have been eliminated from sharing in the rewards – if and when they ever come.

Both Chrysler and AT&T show, each in its own way, that the propaganda for concessions has nothing to do with reality. The situations of the bourgeoisie and of the working class do not rise and fall together. According to Census Bureau figures on income (which exclude capital gains and therefore significantly understate the bourgeoisie’s increase in its total wealth), the wealthiest families are doing much better today than they were in 1970, while the poor are doing much worse. Indeed, what interest could they have had in common, when, for example, in 1981, the richest five per cent of U.S. families had essentially the same amount (15.4 per cent) of the total national income as had the poorest forty per cent (16.3 per cent)?

Profit Isn’t the Issue – Force Is!

The question of what the workers can get is not at all tied to the good or bad shape of the bosses. It depends only on the relationship of forces in the social struggle.

The economic crisis is at the same time an excuse for the bourgeoisie to ask for concessions and, above all, a good opportunity to impose them, whether the company is profitable or not. The capitalists have used this period of crisis to try to take the most that they could from the workers, whether their particular company was doing well or poorly. The threat hanging over every worker’s head from the high rate of unemployment has been used to good effect. Moreover, the other cutbacks which the bourgeoisie enforced through its state, have subsequently added to the pressures on the workers not to fight. While the attacks on social security, unemployment compensation, medical care payments, food stamps, welfare, and so on place a still greater burden on the shoulders of the poorest layers, in turn, each company can use the increased threat of what joblessness implies as a lever against its work force in the drive for more concessions from those still employed.

And they have done it. In 1980 and 1981, the average first year wage increase in major union contracts was about eight per cent. Given the fact that first year increases generally include COLA, productivity, and basic wage increases, subsequent years of the contract always contain significantly lower increases. Even so, even the first year increases did not keep up with the increase in the cost of living. The increase in the cost of living in the preceding years to which these eight per cent wage increases correspond were 13.3 per cent (1979), and 12.4 per cent (1980). In 1981, the cost of living rose somewhat less, 8.9 per cent, but the average first year wage increase for major contracts was just under four per cent. In 1982, the cost of living rose just 3.9 per cent. But in the first quarter of 1983, the average major contract of first year wage change was actually negative, a wage cut even without regard to inflation. Since these figures are for major unions only, the situation for most of the working class is considerably worse. This is the result for the workers in the period since the concessions began.

A Strike ... but without a Prospect to Win

At AT&T, unlike Chrysler and most other cases, the unions proposed a strike. CWA President Watts, in announcing the start of the strike, insisted that the unions would ultimately win sizeable gains. Pointing to AT&T’s profits, he said, “This is not the steel industry.”

But to see the company’s profits is not the same thing as to get a piece of them. The result of the strike was a concession contract and, as well, a demoralization among the workers. For some, it was no doubt a further lesson in the futility of fighting to defend yourself.

The union leadership proposed a strike. But did they show the workers how it was possible to win? Did they prepare the workers in advance for the strike? Did they do all they could to give the workers confidence in their strength, to show them the potential of their struggle? There are the real questions about the leadership of the strike.

Certainly, the officials could have presented such a perspective, and the workers might have rejected it. It was always evident that there was not a lot of enthusiasm among the workers for a strike. But the worst that would have happened in that case would not have been much different from the actual results.

In fact, what the leaders of the unions did propose can be seen from the fact that they did not prepare the workers for a strike that they led. Up to the day before the strike, they talked as though they would gain a settlement for the workers without recourse to a strike. And once the strike began, everything they did minimized the workers’ strength. Picket lines were token; there were hardly any meetings; the workers were told to report only every few days, or even to wait at home until called for strike “duty”. It was not apparent to the workers, neither to those who wanted to strike, nor to those who wavered, that anyone at all was following the strike. Morally, as well as physically, the forces of the workers were dispersed.

It wasn’t true, as the company said, that phone service went on because the equipment was automated. Service continued, first, because sizeable numbers of workers, seeing no prospect, drifted back to work, or even never went out; and second, because the unions made no attempt to gain the adherence to the strike of the non-unionized office workers, many of whom were sent in to replace the operators.

Certainly, if the workers decide to return to work without a victory, the union officials cannot make them stay out, they cannot do more than Watts did at that point. There is nothing per se to reproach in the officials’ decision to settle when they did, when the workers were returning in big numbers.

But we can reproach them for the fact that, from the beginning, when they proposed the strike, they did not show to the workers that there was a way to win; they did not organize the workers to maximize their strength and solidarity.

Common Interests – Common Struggle

Even if the strike at AT&T had been militant, even if the workers had been mobilized, the gains could have been minimal, for the strike might have stayed isolated.

On the other hand, the workers at AT&T could have found support from the other workers. Their strike might have been an encouragement to the other workers to defend themselves. The telephone workers are in every state, every city. Virtually every section of the working class has been under attack and has an interest to make a fight. If the phones had stopped working, the question of the possibility to make a fight could have been obvious to every worker who uses a telephone. The telephone workers could have appealed to the other workers on the basis of the similarities in their situations, their common interests.

The AT&T workers were not tied to the gates of their plants and offices. They could have poured into the centers of the cities and shown their anger against the bankers and politicians – and to the other workers.

In such a circumstance, it’s imaginable that not only unionized workers facing concessions, but other layers of the population hard hit in the last period, could take up their own fights. The unemployed, particularly the young people, need jobs. The hungry need immediate distribution of so-called “surplus” food. All the people confront the bourgeoisie’s war plans, which not only drain the economy, but threaten people’s lives. We saw before, in the 1960s, how the determined struggle of black people called forth a response among the university students who built a movement against the war in Viet Nam. The determined struggle of any group always has the potential to ignite a broader social movement.

This may all seem far removed from the question of the AT&T strike. But the policy of the bourgeoisie is to take everything from everyone that the relationship of forces allows them. It’s this fact that gives the possibility for a common struggle by all those affected. Even if other sections of the working class did not engage the fight at this time, they could still have carried a militant AT&T strike in their memory. As an example, in 1934, there were mass strikes in Toledo, San Francisco, and Minneapolis. At the time, the struggle was relatively isolated in a few places. But we can observe that these strikes were the cutting edge of a broad movement of the working class which developed over the next few years.

Even if the workers are not prepared to accept this prospect, to act on it now, there is not other way for them to defend themselves effectively against the attacks of the bourgeoisie. Sooner or later, as in the 1930s, the working class in the U.S. will have no choice but to make such a fight.

Without recognizing this reality and putting the necessary proposals before the workers, no organization can represent the interests of the working class. Today, none of the union leaderships make such proposals. Either they find the way, like the UAW, to accept the bourgeoisie’s concession demands or, like the CWA, they propose a fight, but within such narrow limits that it can’t possibly take workers forward. In either case, they are simply bureaucrats, and not representatives of the interests of the working class.