Throughout his career in the labor movement, Communications Workers of America (CWA) President Larry Cohen has championed organizing new workers, mobilizing members for issue-oriented politics, union democracy, coalition-building and the right of workers to unionize and collectively bargain. He has also played an important role in developing policy on technology and the structure of the telecommunications industry. But CWA represents workers in a wide range of industries beyond those related to its origin as a telephone union, including public workers.
Cohen argues that unions must tackle all fronts, implicitly rejecting any artificial choice between politics and organizing. CWA, for example, is working with the big German union, Ver.di, to form a joint union of T‑Mobile workers. And it is taking advantage of the post-Wisconsin public attention to worker rights to keep those rights “front and center” in the organizing drive. The union president also stresses organizing of front-line shop stewards as crucial for all aspects of CWA’s work, including periodic nationwide telephone call-ins involving thousands of stewards, the main worksite representatives of the union.
But Cohen’s also escalating and deepening the union’s partnership with other groups, including new Ohio coalitions to restore labor rights that Republicans this year have taken away and to fight Gov. John Kasich’s budget cuts. (See “Unions Work to Turn the Tide,” my story in In These Times’ July issue.) In the process, they’re attacking financial malfeasance of major financial institutions like J.P. Morgan Chase Bank.
While Republicans have forced many defensive fights, Cohen and CWA are also taking the initiative in pushing progressive ideas, such as state single-payer health insurance plans in Vermont and California. The union’s top political priorities for the next five years, he says, are jobs – especially secure and environmentally sustainable jobs, universal healthcare, retirement security, and bargaining and organizing rights.
Cohen recently talked with In These Times about some of the leading issues facing working people, the labor movement and CWA in particular — -and the proposed AT&T/T‑Mobile merger, which CWA does not oppose.
David Moberg: Why right-wing politicians and corporations engaged in such an attack on workers’ rights at this time?
Larry Cohen: It’s the connection of their economic agenda and their political agenda. So on the economic side they’re very hot on this notion that all you need is markets, and that will take care of everything. You can strip away government services, even public education.
Number two, they – including the Chamber of Commerce as well as all the lesser known groups like ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] – see organizations of working-class people as political obstacles to getting that agenda.
So the attacks were all coordinated. A lot of these bills were developed and written by ALEC and funded by some of the largest companies and wealthiest people in America.
If you had to pick out the most critical battles at the state level and at the national level, what would you zero in on?
Obviously the recall elections in Wisconsin and the citizens’ referendum campaign in Ohio to repeal SB5 on November 8. And in New Jersey, which is a huge state for us, stopping stripping healthcare out off the table for public workers.
There is stuff on the other side as well, where we can go on the attack. In the [the heavily Republican 26th Congressional District in New York race, where a Democrat was elected in May], 4,000 CWA’ers worked with the Working Families Party in the district. There’s also a huge alliance that we’ve built… The AFL-CIO is a huge factor but also SEIU, UFCW, Teamsters, and National Education Association – and then partnering with all the human rights and green progressive groups.
We would say there are four aspects to this – legislative, electoral, organizing and movement building. Together they spell out both defense and offense.
How you would describe “labor independence,” which AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka has been talking about recently?
The way we would describe it is that we organize politically, and that is related to the rest of what we do – jobs, retirement security, bargaining and organizing rights, and restoring democracy in America – which mean [changing] Senate [filibuster and voting] rules and campaign finance reform. That’s the basis then of our political work. It’s not [all] centralized. For the most part we have a legislative political action team with active CWA members, but sometimes they’re off the job, many of them [working] full time on a statewide basis [or] by congressional district
We put a lot of resources into that team. We have lots of focus on education with that group, and we have a state structure in most states. It’s issue-based, as it has been for a long time.
In places like Oregon and New York, we’re working with Working Families Party as part of the strategy. We work around those issues. When necessary we also run primaries – like with Bill Halter [against conservative Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln last year]. We’re proud of that work.
The political thing is not an end in itself. It’s not like it’s a fun game. We do it to move forward on the issues.
But we need to acknowledge the leadership of [former Speaker of the House Nancy] Pelosi and the folks around her. In the Senate there are many I would say the same thing about. The White House, to a certain extent, is a reflection of the rest of it. They’re part of the government. I think on a personal level and an administrative level we probably have stronger support for workers’ rights than we’ve had from the White House certainly in my lifetime. I’m sure you can go back further than that but I think we have to see the political situation sort of in its context.
At the same time, we need a fair amount of humility because electoral politics is about numbers. A million and a half union jobs were destroyed in the last two years. More are under attack now. Unless we reach out and organize in the community as well as the workplaces, that loss is going to mean less political clout. There’s not a way around that. I think we need to be realistic about that as well. …
Do you think what Trumka is talking about represents a departure from the rest of the labor movement in any way?
No. The speech that he gave was meant to make it clear that regardless of what it’s been – and that’s not clear – that he did make it clear that the strategy of labor today is to help build a political movement around economic justice. I think he was clarifying this is what our strategy is, regardless of what it has been or what people think it has been.
On the Employee Free Choice Act, some people talk about trying to break it up and get some part of it passed, like increased employer penalties for violating the law. Does that seem reasonable, viable?
No. Because the same problem exists on anything you do. The Chamber of Commerce will oppose anything, and they’ll get every Republican Senator to unite with them – every single one. And in the [House, Republican Speaker John] Boehner will get all but about ten [Republicans] which will still leave us short.
So we believe in carving out legislative, political, organizing and movement building paths that lead to something. At this point we’re not going to pass any useful federal legislation for working people. It’s not possible. And I think we need to be clear on that. That’s what we say to our members.
The important thing is now we’re going to build a stronger political movement, and part of that movement has to be Senate democracy. I don’t think there’s unity on that among all of our partner groups and all of labor, and that’s fine. We will take up that conversation with those who agree with that.
I don’t think we can tell our members we’re going to play defense for the rest of your life. The Tea Party doesn’t do that. We’re not going to do it either. We need to fight for social change the way people mobilized in 2008 and in New York’s 26th congressional district [in May]. We need to make a path to change. And if the other side gets a majority, and we are under increased attack because of it, so be it.
Our future lies with the majority of the American people, and we have to argue and fight our way to make that majority the real majority. I do think we need to get total transparency about how money is spent, and unions need to be part of the movement for total transparency.
There’s no strategy where labor union’s money is a substitute for movement. Whatever money is around, it needs to be for movement building. Politics needs to be open and transparent, and we need to insist that the wealthiest Americans are not going to get away with hiding through phony front groups that they’re backing. We’re going to build a movement to know their names and what they’re doing. …
And that applies to progressive billionaires as well?
Absolutely. Put your name down or don’t bother. We would align totally with Common Cause on virtually everything, on every one of those issues. We also encourage our members to join Common Cause. We’re saying that openly. We need to bring democracy back. We need a broad-based majority movement to do that. [Common Cause has] been doing that. [President] Bob Edgar is way out there on workers’ rights. Transparency, rights at work, people can be active in their community to make a difference. That’s what democracy looks like.
Just briefly, what is the situation with T‑Mobile? You’re supporting the AT&T acquisition despite some people in the media and democracy being worried that would give the company too much power.
Here’s how we see the merger: We got involved when Sprint tried to buy T‑Mobile. We revved up those [other] countries to fight that deal. And that really is what’s going on here. You won’t hear that from the companies, but on the record I will say when Sprint went all out to try to acquire T‑Mobile, that would have been horrendous for T‑Mobile. Our workers would have no recognition just like everybody else [at Sprint].
Sprint’s record is to contract out the majority of their call center work. They’ve contracted out almost all the front line engineering work to Ericsson. A lot of that technical work, [like customer service], has been off-shored. At La Connexion Familiar, they fired everybody [when workers tried to organize], and Sprint moved the work to Texas and contracted it out. They were mostly Latino workers in the Bay Area. They have a record. It sucks. We don’t forget these things.
There’s this notion of some progressives, great people who we partner with on a million other things, that – number one – we’re going to have some kind of ideal [competitive] capitalism [in the telecommunications industry]. To me, that is absurd. And – second – in this case, it is a question of the industry’s number three company [Sprint] buying number four [T‑Mobile] or of number two [ATT] buying number four. As progressives, that shouldn’t be our game to begin with. The job of the Federal Communications Commission is to regulate these things, before and after, but not over-regulate them, because you do want to bring in new technology.
Anyway, the second piece of this besides workers’ rights and jobs, which are two giant things, is broadband commitment. We believe that the management of these companies will accept a merger conditioned on [requiring a 4G standard], which would provide ten megabytes on Internet service or on wireless to 98 percent of Americans. This is not an advertising pitch. The numbers are spelled out – by a certain year, at this speed of close to ten megabytes (though it does drop down some the further you get from the cell tower). That means extending fibers to every cell tower. You can’t do this without fibers. That brings fibers through all these rural communities that now have nothing.
The president, in his State of the Union address – he didn’t know about this deal because it was a few weeks before – talked about the necessity for broadband build-out across rural America. The FCC also said it last year, but where are they going to get the $10 billion a year on top of the merger cost. [This merger] is the only way you’re going to get that. Especially with this Congress, we’re not going to have a publicly financed Internet.
So that’s great that some of these folks believe that we might, but that’s the same as believing in the tooth fairy. In the country we live in, where we are now falling behind even Romania, we need to get real, high-speed Internet to rural communities. The Sierra Club just came out today supporting this [merger agreement] because they know that [otherwise] these rural communities are going to die, the same way they would die in Montana with no water. They will die without high-speed Internet. Everyone will say, “We believe in it,” and that’s good, but how are you going to get it done?
For five years we’ve been on this campaign that “speed matters.” It’s not the whole story for us, but we need a line to the anchor institutions – libraries and schools and hospitals and government offices in rural America. I think there is a path to that by redeploying universal service funds. That’s, frankly, a cheaper way, although you would also need $7 or $8 billion a year. … So in the real world we live in, I would say to groups like Free Press, as they well know, this is going one way or the other – Sprint or AT&T. And it is not a close call as far as we’re concerned.
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.