Communications Workers Fight Telecom Giant for MLK Day Off

Two CWA members with signs for Black lives on the pavement

Two CWA members are pictured protesting for Black lives last year in Memphis. Now, the union is commemorating King’s legacy the right way—by fighting back against an unscrupulous corporation. Photo: CWA, cropped from original.

One multinational company is using Martin Luther King Day to issue a slap in the face to its union, undermining the very legacy of the civil rights leader.

Louisiana-based telecommunications giant Lumen Technologies (formerly CenturyLink) announced to its staff October 23 that it would be newly establishing a company holiday on MLK Day—but for non-union workers only.

The hypocrisy of leaving out 10,000 union workers on MLK Day was not well received by Anna Robbs, an African-American employee and union steward.

“How dare they?” she recalled thinking. “I just couldn’t wrap my head around how they could feel that there was diversity and inclusion and belonging when they were excluding the very people that Martin Luther King stood up for in terms of labor rights and worker rights.”

Robbs is also an executive board member of Communications Workers (CWA) Local 7777. With the help of her union, she decided to commemorate King’s legacy the right way—by fighting back against an unscrupulous corporation.

“Let’s go and get into some more good trouble,” she said.

REBUFFED TILL 2023

At Robbs’s prompting, CWA contacted CEO Jeff Storey and requested that unionized Lumen workers be granted the holiday, too. The company refused, telling the union that the holiday would have to be bargained in the next contract in 2023.

CWA then set up a petition that got 1,500 signatures.

Anthony Scorzo, a white broadband technician and the local’s vice president, has been organizing members around the issue through worksite visits and one-on-one meetings to collect petition signatures.

“The members understand what Dr. King meant to worker rights,” he said. “It’s been an assault on the union. They’re not surprised by it; they’re willing to fight.”

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On Monday the union sent Storey the petition, along with a letter from Robbs and 10 other African-American Lumen employees requesting both the paid holiday and a meeting by today to discuss other racial justice issues at the company. (More on that below.)

Thus far, Lumen has not extended MLK Day to union workers, but has informed the union that it will reach out to the signatories of the letter. CWA has planned a virtual rally on MLK Day at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on Facebook to spread the word about the issue.

‘WOKE-WASHING’

Lumen’s divisive MLK Day strategy continues a pattern of undermining its union workforce, in this case “woke-washing” its anti-union move as a progressive gesture. Meanwhile the company’s practices are harming workers of color.

According to Scorzo, since the company acquired Level 3 Communications in 2017, Lumen has been hostile towards its unionized members.

“They’re making it miserable to work here,” he said, “and this MLK Day is just the next thing that they’ve done.”

For example, Scorzo said the company has not offered hazard pay during the pandemic to workers who have to enter customers’ homes, placing themselves in danger of contracting Covid.

Lumen has also laid off union workers disproportionately and attempted to keep the union out of the fiber-optic broadband sector of the company’s work, which workers see as its future.

Perhaps most galling, the company has failed to actually address racism in a meaningful way. Robbs pointed to a salary gap between Black workers and other workers, and said Black workers are often bypassed for jobs that they are qualified for. “There are a lot of complaints of racism in the corporate office,” she said.

Lumen has failed to maintain the telecommunications network for residences and small businesses, disproportionately harming communities of color. In recent years, its business with large and international enterprises has grown instead.

“I would like for us to come together to make it a more equitable workplace,” Robbs said. She pointed to Lumen’s “One Company, One Culture” slogan and said, “There will never be one company or one culture without the union.”

Saurav Sarkar is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes.saurav@labornotes.org