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Work from home arrangements that proliferated during the Covid pandemic and became very popular among white-collar workers are now the subject of a tug of war between labor and management. Some of the highest-profile bosses in the United States — Mark Zuckerberg at Meta, Elon Musk at Twitter, Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase and Andy Jassy at Amazon — have recently decreed that it’s time to get back in the office.
Such mandates have led to widespread push-back, even among workers without collective bargaining rights. At Amazon, for example, more than 20,000 employees signed a petition earlier this year urgeing Jassy to reconsider his May 1 deadline for workers to show up to the office at least three days per week, with few exceptions. On May 31 in Seattle, more than 1,000 Amazon workers walked off the job during lunchtime to protest what they called a “harmful, unilateral decision.” Another 2,000 Amazon employees engaged in similar actions worldwide on that same day, as part of a coordinated cross-border solidarity campaign.
Achieving more concrete results, because of their collective bargaining clout, over 150,000 Canadian workers just won what three labor researchers call “important steps toward an ongoing work-from-home protocol.” After staging its largest public sector strike ever, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) negotiated a side agreement “requiring that remote work requests be evaluated individually, not by groups of employees,” and creating department level labor-management committees “to oversee the future evolution of remote work practices.”
Within one major AFL-CIO affiliate, no one believes that unions should leave working conditions subject to unilateral decisions by management. But, as a rare contested election for the presidency of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) has revealed, not every would-be leader of that union thinks that working from home arrangements and hybrid schedules are a win-win for everyone.
These differences surfaced internally last year when pandemic-driven Work From Home (WFH) deals in the telecom industry were up for renegotiation and management, some union negotiators, and many rank-and-file members were not all on the same page. During the height of Covid-19, tens of thousands of CWA-represented workers in telecom, the public sector, higher education, the media, and airlines all worked from home, and many got to like it.
Now, delegates are set to choose CWA’s next president at a national convention in St. Louis starting July 10. The results could have serious consequences for the future of WFH policies in CWA contracts. As a retired CWA staffer, still active as a rank-and-file member of the NewsGuild/CWA, my past union organizing and bargaining experience has led me to see the fight over WFH as critical to the future direction of our increasingly diverse union.
A leadership divide?
When around 1,000 local union delegates gather on Monday to cast ballots on behalf of 360,000 CWA members in the United States and Canada, they will have a choice between three candidates — national Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens, who hails from the Pacific Media Workers Guild, a Bay Area CWA-affiliate; Claude Cummings Jr., a CWA Vice-President and civil right leader from Texas, and Vice-President Ed Mooney, a regional leader and longtime negotiator with Verizon from Philadelphia.
In a first ever CWA presidential debate on May 15 — and through written responses to candidate questionnaires by a local union sponsoring that exchange — Steffens and Cummings both pledged to defend WFH in new and old bargaining units because of its popularity among call center workers and other CWA members. During the debate, Mooney was more ambiguous about his stance on WFH arrangements. “Everybody liked work from home,” he acknowledged. But now, he warned, “the companies are in the driver’s seat because they are aware our members like it so much.”
(Mooney declined to provide a written statement of his position to debate organizers and, unlike the other two candidates, did not respond to multiple email and phone requests for an interview.)
Rank-and-file backing for WFH
Thousands of CWA members got a reminder of who’s in the driver’s seat at AT&T when the company ordered them back to their call centers last September. According to Local 7250 President Kieran Knutson, customer service reps had discovered, during the pandemic, that remote work “was safer, saved them money on commuting and childcare, gave them more time for rest and with their families and more control of their work space.”
That’s why Knutson and leaders of several other AT&T locals launched a grassroots campaign aimed at keeping WFH as an option. They organized protests and press conferences which drew national media attention at outlets including CBS Evening News, Fortune and The Guardian. They collected 8,000 rank-and-file signatures on a petition demanding WFH as a permanent option for service reps, teleconference specialists, communications technicians and other workers. The pro-WFH petitioners expressed solidarity with fellow CWA members who “do want to work at a central business location and support keeping that option as well.”
In Knutson’s view, this grassroots initiative “didn’t get much support” from top CWA officials who negotiate with AT&T and Verizon, the two largest unionized telecom firms. As a result, Local 7250 members had an unhappy return to company work locations last September. Frustrated that the union “has gotten so used to a top-down model where leaders tell the members what’s important,” rather than the other way around, Knutson became a lead organizer of the May 15 candidate debate focused on WFH and other organizing and bargaining issues.
WFH negotiating challenges
In her pre-debate statement of support for WFH, Steffens called it “a major quality-of-life benefit, as important as pay and job security, for our members in jobs where it’s possible.” She noted that many of CWA’s own field organizers and reps “now have hybrid work assignments.” As national president, Steffens pledged to “collect and share best practices for work from home, including model contract language on critical issues like new hire data and orientations, remote surveillance, equipment reimbursement and callback protections.”
To deal with the internal and external organizing challenges created by remote work arrangements, she argues that CWA must build better “systems to support hybrid and home-based workers and units, including funding home visits, organizing blitzes, electronic membership cards, virtual union boards and other strategies to ensure that our union density and activism remains strong.”
A longtime negotiator with AT&T and former telephone technician himself, Cummings says he “recognized early during the pandemic that our members were enjoying WFH” — and that’s why he supported the Local 7250 petition last year. As Vice-President and director of CWA’s fourth largest district, Cummings allowed his own field staff to work from home and says he received no membership complaints about that subsequently. He believes more job flexibility can be achieved through periodic contract negotiations, so-called “effects bargaining,” and “a strong mobilization effort for WFH during contract negotiations.”
Like Steffens, he argues that CWA rank-and-filers covered by WFH deals need a “strong and effective network” of empowered job stewards. Proper tools, training and education is essential to the success of this process, Cummings notes. “Zoom membership meetings and quarterly gatherings such as ‘Union Days’ that include educational programs along with outreach helps keep our members engaged and connected to their unions.”
Remote work skeptics
Mooney appears to be more skeptical of WFH policies. He was quick to order the 11 national staff members he directs, in the mid-Atlantic states, back into CWA offices faster than in any other CWA district, according to a CWA staff union official, who asked not to be identified to avoid retaliation. Meanwhile, CWA headquarters staffers in Washington, D.C. continued to work remotely, in key departments.
On the question of WFH at AT&T, Mooney told debate listeners in May “the whole world is trying to figure out, is this a ‘flavor of the month’ kind of thing for employers? Are they going to do it just to eliminate workers? Are they going to pull them back and forth? So, when we go and bargain this stuff, we have to make sure we get protections.”
Mooney predicted much more “push and pull” over hybrid work schedules until “we get this to a spot where it’s mutually beneficial.” And he defended his behind-the-scenes role in CWA-IBEW regional talks with Verizon last year. Those negotiations ended up extending remote work opportunities for Verizon customer service reps — but only after other bargaining committee members, like Local 1400 President Don Trementozzi, say they were able to overcome objections to doing so, initially raised by Mooney during union caucusing.
Past pushing and pulling
Three decades ago, I had first hand familiarity with such internal tensions and disagreements between representatives of different parts of the telecom workforce, and even among different types of technicians themselves.
As a national union rep between 1980 and 2007, I worked with cable company and telco technicians in CWA and IBEW who had divided views on this subject in the pre-pandemic era. The cable workers enjoyed “home garaging” — parking their trucks at home every night — but union-minded telephone techs wanted their co-workers to report to a central location to pick up their equipment before starting work. That way, union members would have more contact with each other at least twice a day, and get a briefing from their shop stewards, in a pre-or post-work huddle.
After I helped a group of 1,500 customer service reps in New England win a first contract in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t long before the company now known as Verizon wanted to do a “trial” of WFH. One reason for union opposition to that proposal then was the fear that contract enforcement in newly organized call centers would be more difficult.
If too many members were working in isolation at home, as opposed to under the same roof, how would stewards and mobilization coordinators be able to interact with them, organize strike solidarity, or even easily inform members about their rights on the job?
One local’s Covid-19 experience
But the availability of now well-tested new tools for communication, coordination and membership participation — that were not available in the past — has convinced me that greater union flexibility on this issue is critical.
One fellow CWA member who has been most persuasive on this subject is Trementozzi, a former customer service rep whose New England-based local reflects the unusual occupational and industry diversity of CWA.
By the end of last year, Local 1400 had grown to 2,700 dues-paying members, more than doubling its previous membership. These members include customer service and sales reps in call centers or retail stores, media and manufacturing workers, software developers, data center staff and local government employees. Trementozzi also helped support the Alphabet Workers Union, a self-organized group at Google, that grew to over 1,000 members while working remotely and now have their own newly-chartered Local 9009 in California, where the company is based.
As a local leader, Trementozzi is no stranger to workplace militancy. He has been involved in two major Verizon strikes, a local work stoppage at AT&T, and the nation’s longest walkout in 2014 — a successful fight against contract concessions at FairPoint Communications by 2,000 workers that lasted 131 days.
Trementozzi reports that, during the pandemic, rank-and-file participation in his union local actually increased. Because bargaining sessions, committee meetings and general membership gatherings were conducted via Zoom, they attracted many participants who would not have attended in person, after working all day in their previous reporting locations. Local 1400 continued to have success recruiting new members, including those who worked from home while campaigning for union recognition and first contracts.
Trementozzi argues that WFH “addresses a key quality of life issue for hundreds of thousands of workers we represent and even more we are trying to organize.” In every contract survey, he points out, “CWA members have told us to make this a key proposal at the bargaining table.”
Trementozzi’s experience butting heads with Mooney, (and officials from some other telephone technician-dominated locals) over the WFH extension at Verizon last year helped make him a supporter of Steffens for CWA president. He is impressed by her declared “intention to listen to members…instead of clinging to what used to be.”
“The number one issue for many members is ‘work at home’ — or having hybrid schedules,” he told me.
How a majority of CWA delegates comes down on that and other campaign issues will not be known until a first round of voting is completed on Monday, which may lead to a run-off on Tuesday, between the top two finishers in the race.
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Steve Early was involved in organizing, bargaining, and strikes at AT&T and Verizon for 27 years, while serving as a Boston-based CWA International representative and, later, administrative assistant to the vice-president of CWA District 1, the union’s largest. He is an active member of the NewsGuild/CWA Freelancers Unit in the Bay Area and is supporting Sara Steffens for CWA president. He has written five books about labor or politics and can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com