Rank and File Action Wins Connecticut Phone Strike

One of the most surprising strikes in New England in the last ten years ended September 17, when Connecticut telephone workers voted 3-1 to ratify a 32-month agreement. The 6,300 workers struck Southern New England Telephone (SNET) on August 23 after a previous contract settlement fell short of membership expectations.

Most of what the strikers fought for was achieved, although not everything this time around. Their main goals were eliminating two-tier pay, benefits, and work-rules; achieving parity with other telephone workers in the Northeast; and winning base wage increases. But perhaps the most important gain was the giant stride towards transforming what had been an isolated, complacent company union into one that is militant and creative, with a new layer of rank and file leadership, tested in action.

The unusual dynamic of the strike had much to do with the political tensions that preceded it: a hard-fought internal battle over which national union the previously unaffiliated Connecticut Union of Telephone Workers (CUTW) should join. In July, members voted overwhelmingly to merge with the Communications Workers of America against the wishes of most CUTW officials.

The rank and file pro-CWA affiliation committee went on to become contract mobilization coordinators and the core of a statewide strike committee. Meanwhile, the union's anti-CWA elements, still dominant in the officialdom, were often missing in action or resistant to grassroots initiatives.

In the four weeks between the affiliation vote and the original contract expiration date, CWA made an abortive attempt to eliminate past concessions negotiated by the CUTW. A too-small bargaining committee failed to keep members informed about its progress (or lack of it) and signed a tentative agreement on August 7 that even CWA's own mobilization coordinators would not support.

AGREEMENT REPUDIATED

In clear violation of federal labor law, CWA quickly repudiated the tentative agreement. The national union refused to put it out to a ratification vote (as the company demanded) and instead held a series of membership meetings to solicit new proposals and restore rank and file confidence in the bargaining process. The negotiating committee was expanded to include mobilization activists and, at one crucial session, seven rank and file workers as well.

Meanwhile intensive preparations were made to wage a high-profile, high-impact walkout.

On August 22, the work stoppage began with mass picket lines and aggressive mobile flying squads targeting scab crews in phone trucks.

The strike was, on paper, directed by an elaborate and often illusory network of "picket commanders" appointed by the E-board. However, strikers themselves immediately took over control in most areas, while the best of the "commanders" began to work with the unofficial strike committee that held daily strategy meetings--open to all--in CWA's district office.

From the beginning, the strike committee's objective was to hit SNET hard in as many different places as possible. A "flying circus" was started in order to take the strike wherever management happened to be. Boisterous picketing of the CEO and other management figures occurred nightly at their homes. Any company-sponsored event, from the Pilot Pen Tennis Tournament to performances of the New Haven Symphony, became a target.

Operating from the premise that preparing for a long strike is the best way to shorten one, plans were made for the short, medium and long term. Organizers came from Massachusetts Jobs with Justice to plan solidarity actions and to reach out to community, academic, and religious groups. Students began targeting the president of Connecticut College, a member of the SNET Board of Directors, while leaders of the recent Puerto Rican telephone strike were brought in for rally speeches and outreach to the state's sizable Puerto Rican community.

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SOCIAL MOVEMENT

A consumer strategy was developed to pressure the company with a threatened--and potentially devastating--plan to organize consumers to cancel SNET as their long-distance carrier.

The strike became a social movement of all of labor. The Connecticut and New Haven AFL-CIO, the Hotel Workers at Yale, Teamsters, 1199, and many others were active supporters. Unions across the state opened up their halls as strike headquarters for picket lines that seemed to be everywhere. Huge marches were organized in Hartford and New Haven.

The mass demonstrations and accompanying arrests were an extension of the daily battles strikers waged with the police on the picket lines. In Meriden, one of the largest SNET work sites, the police tried to limit the number of picketers to six. After dozens of workers marched on the Mayor's office, the police gave in. Henceforth, it would take as long as two hours for the scabs to cross the picket lines.

Backing from the CWA International was critical to winning the strike. SNET is merging with telecommunications giant SBC, and strong support by CWA locals at SBC and elsewhere put growing pressure on the company. Weekly strike benefits of $200 made a big difference, as did the food banks which were organized by the rank and file across the state.

A POWERFUL MODEL

CWA organizers consistently tried to develop rank and file leadership, and strikers were encouraged to come up with their own initiatives--such as "garden parties" at the hotels where scabs were being housed.

Weekly mass meetings, daily updates on CWA's (widely used) web page, and strike bulletins issued every few days helped overcome the occasional confusion caused by the bumbling of some CUTW officials. As the strike progressed, the authority of the strike committee grew, as did that of rank and file leaders on the 100 or more picket lines across the state. For the first time, many workers began to sense that the union belonged to them.

Hopefully, that sentiment will continue beyond the strike, giving birth to a progressive, militant local committed to a vision of labor as a social movement, not a business. Upcoming union elections will hopefully reflect the progress made during the strike.

The model of a rank and file led strike, taking advantage of the resources that international unions have, proved to be a powerful one in Connecticut. Ideally, this is a model that we will see more of as the labor movement confronts the deepening economic crisis and the resultant employer attacks that are already visible on the horizon.

Russ Davis is director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice and a member of IUE Local 201. He spent two weeks in Connecticut aiding the SNET strike.