The CWA's Experience: A Tale of Two Card-Check Agreements

April 2003

"Bargaining to organize” is a central goal of many unions-but it doesn’t always work as planned. The CWA (Communications Workers) has had polar opposite experiences with bargaining to organize at two phone industry giants. The differences were related to both the employers’ good faith, or lack thereof, and to our own mobilization efforts.

Bargaining to organize means convincing-or forcing-an employer to agree not to block the way when its workers want to join a union. It means that the union does not have to counter a nasty anti-union campaign, it avoids the NLRB’s long delays, and it makes bargaining a first contract far easier.

In a “card check” agreement, the employer agrees to recognize the union once a majority of employees (or some higher percentage) have signed up on cards in an agreed-upon unit. With a neutrality agreement, often bargained at the same time, the employer promises not to conduct an anti-union campaign.

Using a card check and neutrality agreement negotiated with parent company SBC, over the past eight years CWA has organized over 17,000 employees at an SBC subsidiary, Cingular Wireless. We’ve had very different results with the card check agreement we negotiated in 2000 after an 18-day strike at Verizon.


The union’s victory at Cingular did not happen overnight. The effort started in 1992 at Southwestern Bell Mobile Systems (SBMS). SBMS was the cellular arm of SBC, which employs CWA members in Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Texas. CWA realized that the fast-growing part of the company was wireless and that, if wireless workers remained unorganized, union bargaining power would erode.

When it first tried to organize workers at SBMS in the early 1990’s, CWA took the standard NLRB route. SBMS conducted anti-union campaigns, hired professional union-busters, and created delays at the NLRB. CWA won three of six NLRB elections, but realized it needed to put much more pressure on SBC to clear away management interference.

So CWA first educated members and local officers about the importance of organizing the wireless division and the tactics that SBMS was using to fight unionization. This education work became the catalyst for much of the local union mobilization that followed. CWA members disrupted joint union/management meetings and participated in rallies.

The union also pressured SBC in the political arena, where the company relied on CWA to support its various regulatory goals. A key turning point was in 1997 when SBC was looking for union support for a proposed merger with Pac Tel, the company serving customers in California and Nevada.

This proved to be sufficient leverage to negotiate a landmark card check agreement, covering employees in current and future subsidiaries of SBC. For recognition, it required 50% +1 of employees in a given bargaining unit to sign up on cards. It froze the bargaining unit from the day the first card was signed.

The agreement also called for neutrality, which the company has honored. This allowed for a much quicker and less confrontational organizing process.

In 1999, this agreement was extended to SBC-owned Cell One and later to Cingular Wireless, a joint venture with BellSouth. As a result, CWA represents 17,000 employees at Cingular and is currently conducting organizing drives with these workers in the South.


The 2000 agreement on Verizon Wireless covered VZW’s customer service, technical, and retail employees in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states. A card check majority was defined as signing up 55% or more of eligible employees in a period of 60 days. The definition of neutrality was “the Company shall neither help nor hinder the Union’s conduct of an organizing effort, nor shall it demean the union as an organization or its representatives as individuals.”

VZW violated this provision from Day One. First, it delayed bargaining unit determinations for 18 months. Then Verizon started conducting mandatory “Union Awareness Training” with its employees on a regular basis to “educate” employees about CWA.

VZW also put up a Union Awareness site on its internal internet, declaring “We do not support efforts by unions to unionize our employees.” On this website, VZW attacked CWA’s contract with Cingular, misrepresented what happens in collective bargaining, and threatened job cuts.

As a result of the company’s anti-union campaign, CWA has not succeeded in organizing any VZW workers under this card check agreement, although the union is still working with VZW workers around the country. The Verizon contract expires this summer, and the company’s record of noncompliance could well become a contentious issue in bargaining.


Why did the card-check agreement work at Cingular but not at VZW?

The number one difference is management’s attitude. CWA has been able to maintain a fairly good relationship with SBC, avoiding major conflict. Verizon and its predecessors New York Tel, Nynex, and Bell Atlantic, on the other hand, have a long history of contentious labor relations, strikes, and workplace mobilization.

Another key difference is timing. CWA negotiated the original SBC agreement at a critical juncture for the company. SBC was purchasing other companies and needed labor support. This gave workers leverage.

Finally, the key to the agreement at SBC was rank and file involvement. At SBC, many CWA locals were involved on a regular basis in activities that showed management that card check and neutrality were a top priority. While organizing rights became a major demand during the 2000 strike at Verizon, it has been difficult to maintain that focus because of mass layoffs last fall.

Gaining card check at Cingular was an incremental process that took nearly a decade. With Verizon we have had the language only two years. Clearly, the actual language of any card check agreement makes less difference. More important is the day-to-day behavior of the company. In the telecom industry, experience shows that it takes continuous worker mobilization plus good faith bargaining by management to make organizing rights a reality.

Erin Bowie is an organizer with CWA in Connecticut.

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Labor Notes staff: Introduction to roundtable discussion

Erin Bowie: The CWA's Experience, A Tale of Two Card-Check Agreements

Kate Bronfenbrenner: Union Power Means More Than Market Share

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Steve Early: AFL-CIO's Organizing Summit Looks at "Best Practices" - But Leaves Much Unexamined

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