Twin Cities Cingular workers join CWA


For more than a year, unions have been recommending Cingular Wireless as the preferred cellular phone provider. Now there’s proof in the Twin Cities of why.

Local 7200 of the Communications Workers of America has signed up 534 Cingular workers at a business call center here – the first organizing success in Minnesota under a national agreement in which Cingular grants union recognition as soon as a majority of workers sign authorization cards.

In 2005, 13,540 Cingular workers joined CWA this way, bringing the company-wide total to more than 35,000.

Young workforce unfamiliar with unions
Virtually all the Bloomington workers came to Cingular through the October 2004 merger with AT&T Wireless, said Tom Lonergan, who was the lead organizer in Bloomington. AT&T, he said, was nonunion and anti-union.

“Even with the neutrality agreement, there was a pretty big fear factor” among Cingular workers about organizing, Lonergan said. “We’re dealing with younger workers, mostly in their 20s, many of them in their first full-time job. They really knew nothing about unions.… There was a lot of curiosity but a huge learning curve.”

Many of the workers initially were attracted by the money and benefits of a union contract, Lonergan said, but organizers also stressed advantages such as a grievance procedure and requiring just cause before workers can be disciplined.

“There was a really big education job we had to do,” Lonergan said. “A lot of them don’t know their rights.”

Internal committee is key
Lonergan and CWA organizers from Locals 7200 and 7250 began calling workers in July and August. Workers interested in forming a union were invited to an informational meeting in September, Lonergan said; that meeting formed the basis for an internal organizing committee that ultimately made the difference.

The key, he said, was committee members who had been union members before, including in CWA at other telecommunications companies such as Qwest and Lucent. “Once we got these folks, it took off.”

Workers began signing cards on Oct. 31, which started a 60-day countdown to reach a majority.

But it didn’t take anywhere near that long. Slightly more than two weeks later, the American Arbitration Association certified that a majority of the Cingular workers wanted a union.

Retail stores next?
The workers are now part of Local 7200, which is trying to integrate them into the national contract, Lonergan said. That contract runs until 2008, but the fact that CWA membership at Cingular already has grown by 50 percent “will give them a lot more power when they renegotiate,” he said.

Lonergan, meanwhile, now is helping to organize about 115 workers at 16 Cingular retail stores in the Twin Cities, Rochester and St. Cloud. The workers have until the end of January to reach a majority.

Cingular stands out
CWA’s card-check neutrality agreement with Cingular is part of its national collective bargaining agreement. The agreement distinguishes Cingular from wireless competitors such as Verizon, which had a similar neutrality agreement with CWA in 2000, “but never abided by it and routinely broke it,” said Candice Johnson, a national spokeswoman for CWA.

“It’s really such a sharp contrast,” Johnson said. “What Cingular has done is honored and abided by its agreement and labor law. They’ve maintained full neutrality and let workers make up their own minds.”

Verizon continues to pursue an anti-union strategy, she said, including harassing and even firing workers trying to form a union; shutting down call centers where there is union support; and maintaining an anti-CWA website.

Adapted from The Union Advocate, the official newspaper of the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly.