A voice for a fighting CWA
looks at the contest for the No. 2 spot in an important union.
ON THE eve of a showdown with one of the most powerful corporations in the U.S., delegates to the Communications Workers of America (CWA) convention will have a choice between the status quo and a candidate who vows to step up to the challenge.
CWA Local 1440 President Don Trementozzi is challenging incumbent Annie Hill for secretary-treasurer of the CWA on a platform of standing up to telecom giant Verizon's demands for sweeping concessions in current negotiations while gearing up the union to take on other employers as well.
The contract comes as the union continues to struggle to organize the nonunion Verizon Wireless division.
"Verizon's top management has built an artificial wall separating wireless and other business operations from wireline," Trementozzi said. "Management is using this wall to block members from the high-growth, high-profit segments of the company."
Trementozzi is familiar with aggressive employers. He got his start in the labor movement as a machinist at Brown and Sharpe, where workers waged an epic two-year strike in the early 1980s as the corporate war on labor was getting underway. He later worked in a hospital, where he was also a leading activist in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
As a Verizon worker before taking office at the head of Local 1440, Trementozzi is well acquainted with the company's hard-line management. But in this contract round, Verizon wants to deal a decisive blow to the union in bargaining a contract for 40,000 workers.
The company wants to eliminate the current health insurance plans that are 100 percent paid by the company and replace them with coverage that forces workers to contribute to premiums and pay deductibles. Further, under the company's proposals, there would be no general wage increases or seniority-based raises unless workers pass the company's evaluation. Pay for sick time and disability would also be cut.
Workers' paychecks would also shrink as a result of changes that would eliminate differential pay for nights and weekends, end Sunday premium pay and eliminate double time for working more than 49 hours in a week. Pension benefits would be cut, too. Verizon wants to freeze pension accruals as of December 31, 2011. New hires would get no pension at all.
Verizon wants these cuts despite making huge profits--$10.2 billion in 2010 on revenues of $106.6 billion. "Their proposals seek to destroy our future," Trementozzi's Local 1400 bargaining team said of Verizon's demands. "We need to send a very clear message that this is not acceptable, that we will not be passive as they seek to gut our contract."
THE CWA leadership was slow to gear up for the Verizon contract campaign. And rather than hold the line on concessions, the union has been in retreat.
The latest example is the recently ratified contract with General Electric. In that deal, members of the CWA's International Union of Electrical Workers, in coalition with other unions such as the United Electrical Workers, agreed to a deal for 15,2000 workers that eliminated defined-benefit pensions for new hires, sharply increased health care costs and pegged pay raises to barely more than the rate of inflation. By surrendering pensions for future workers at GE, CWA will only encourage Verizon to be even more aggressive in pursuing the same demand.
Verizon is also encouraged to take a hard line by the CWA's failure to resist givebacks demanded by industry rival AT&T in 2009 contract negotiations that covered 100,000 workers. In that round, CWA leaders vowed to restore pattern bargaining at the "new AT&T," a company created by mergers from the remnants of the old Bell System that was broken up in 1984.
By allowing all the regional contracts to expire, the union vowed to use the leverage to resist company demands for concessions, particularly on health care. Instead, the contract campaign--overseen in part by Trementozzi's opponent, Annie Hill--fizzled as each regional contract settled separately. In those deals, the CWA gave ground in key areas--in particular, health care. Workers have to pay part of monthly premiums for the first time, with new hires paying a higher share.
In one contract, some 35,000 land line workers in the Southeast did reject a tentative deal before approving a somewhat improved agreement. But even that deal eliminated defined benefit pensions--which pay a set amount each month--for new hires.
As the AT&T contract campaign unraveled under Hill's leadership, Local 1298 in Connecticut was left to fight on alone, waging a months-long contract campaign that finally achieved its goal of limiting AT&T's scope to move jobs out of the state.
Local 1298 President William Henderson was in the midst of that fight, which saw hundreds of workers disciplined by the company for actions such as wearing union T-shirts with slogans. He's backing Trementozzi:
I firmly believe our organization needs strong leadership for the issues we face today. Clearly, organized labor is in jeopardy, as witnessed recently in Wisconsin where workers' rights were taken away. Times are changing, and we have to be ready to meet the changes head on. We need your presence in Washington and stand ready for you to accomplish this goal.
Trementozzi also wants the CWA to do more for workers in other industries--members in jobs ranging from flight attendants to public-sector workers and health care workers. Many of these workers came into the CWA through mergers and, according to Trementozzi, don't get the support they need. If elected secretary-treasurer, he promises to put more union resources into organizing in an airline industry, where jobs are threatened by mergers, and in health care, where workers facing constant pressure.
In all industries, the CWA must step up to defend the workers of the future, Trementozzi said:
The spread of two-tier conditions undermines the appeal of our union and all unions to younger workers. "Next Generation" meetings, reports and recommendations won't count for much if the union movement becomes widely perceived by new hires as only being concerned about "our generation" in the workforce, not theirs.
With Trementozzi in a top position, the CWA would be much better able to take on that fight.