Cingular Wireless Approaches Union as a Strategic Partner

By Staff Report

May. 19, 2006

During the past six months, 18,000 Cingular Wireless employees have joined the Communication Workers of America union. In the most recent quarter, Cingular achieved the best financial results in its history.

Lew Walker, Cingular vice president of human resources for operations and labor, believes there’s a connection between the two. The company remained neutral while a majority of workers authorized union representation by signing cards. The result, according to the company, is engaged employees who are focused on customer service and building the Cingular network rather than nursing grudges against management.

“We view the CWA as a strategic partner,” Walker said at an event at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank, on May 18. “What’s good for Cingular is good for CWA.”

That attitude undergirds negotiations on wages, benefits and work rules, according to Walker.

“They allow a contract to go out that allows us to be competitive,” he says of the union.

He emphasized several times the fierce battles that are waged every day between competing wireless carriers. Cingular, with 39,000 employees in unions, is the only one that is organized.

In fact, before it was taken over by Cingular, AT&T Wireless waged a “viciously anti-union campaign that had a negative impact on its workforce,” says Jeff Rechenbach, executive vice president of the Communications Workers of America. Rechenbach sat two chairs down from Walker on the Washington panel.

The goodwill the union receives from Cingular may produce business results. The CWA has launched a campaign to market Cingular’s service.

“We’re trying to convince people to make the switch,” Rechenbach says. A Web site has been established that offers discounts for people who sign up with Cingular.

The Washington event took place in part to promote the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would enable workers to sign up for unions through a card-check process. Union elections are often conducted via secret ballot and overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.

Some businesses assert that card-check campaigns subject workers to coercion from unions, whose representatives force them to sign up in face-to-face meetings. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has launched a campaign to build support for a bill called the Secret Ballot Protection Act.

Unions too often ignore worker sentiment and focus on “what (they) can do to get the company to cave in,” says Michael Eastman, director of labor policy at the chamber. “We’d prefer to see the will of workers determine whether there’s a union, not a pressure campaign.”

Critics contend that secret balloting is undermined by employer intimidation and that workers who seek remedies through the NLRB have their cases bogged down in sclerotic legal proceedings.

“It is a deeply flawed system,” says Mary Beth Maxwell, executive director of American Rights at Work.

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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