Operators Still a Human Voice in Changing Telecom World

At their national conference in Milwaukee, nearly 150 CWA operators prepared to press for state and federal regulation and legislation to counteract the grim state of today’s telecommunications industry, resolved to reach out to the unorganized and sought new ways to position themselves as “customer service professionals.”

The operators gathered Oct. 8-11 to hear CWA President Morton Bahr describe telecommunications deregulation run amok: Numerous companies competing in local and long distance service, manufacturing and wireless; too much competition, capacity and subcontracting; calls routed to who knows where, and companies teetering on bankruptcy.

“Today we are seeing a meltdown in the telecommunications industry,” Bahr said. “In all of my 41 years of bargaining contracts, I’ve never seen the marketplace that exists today.”

He urged the operators to press the Federal Communications Commission to complete a triennial review of the industry and to seek an appropriate level of regulation by the FCC, Congress and public service commissions to stabilize the industry.

“As activists and leaders in CWA, I urge you to return to your workplaces and communities more committed and energized to move our union and our nation forward. We must raise our voices, exercise our strength and use our power,” Bahr said.

Dwindling Employment

District 4 Vice President Jeff Rechenbach welcomed the operators to a conference put together by Local 4603 Vice President Mary Jo Avery, Chief Steward Diane Fisher, and CWA Representative Ann Crump.

Rechenbach called the operators’ attention to a recently disclosed move of AT&T telemarketing jobs to India. “The company taught the Indian operators to speak American English, including idioms and colloquial phrases and expressions,” he said. “One newspaper reported that for these operators to learn the dialect at a faster rate, they showed them reruns of ‘Laverne and Shirley.’”

The number of operators employed by AT&T has dwindled from more than 26,000 in 1986 to about 2,000 today, and operators are disappearing from SBC/Ameritech at the rate of 6 percent a year, Rechenbach said.

He told the operators CWA would do all possible to slow job erosion but urged them to expand their interests, take advantage of their negotiated education and training benefits and to consider transferring into jobs that are less threatened.

Bringing Jobs Back

Executive Vice President Larry Cohen had better news to share: Cingular Wireless recently agreed to bring back 750 operator jobs that had been contracted out to nonunion Metro One. The work will be located in Connecticut and represented by Local 1298.

Despite changing technology, Cohen said there will always be a demand for the call completion and look-up functions operators perform.

“As far ahead as we can see, these functions will remain, both on wireline networks and in wireless and high-speed Internet,” Cohen said. “The question is: Will it be CWA members with union jobs and decent working conditions doing this work or will it be contracted out with low-road sweatshops diminishing the value of the services and fighting unionization?

“As a union we need to ensure that the answer lies on the high road of quality services,” he said.

Lessons of History

Avery said younger operators particularly enjoyed hearing from the union’s national leaders and learning some of the history of their profession from Secretary-Treasurer Barbara Easterling and Bahr’s executive assistant, Dina Beaumont, who both began their union careers as operators.

Easterling pointed out that women today make up 46 percent of the workforce and that women and minorities are the fastest growing segment of the labor movement. She urged operators to campaign and to vote to elect working-family candidates.

“Making a difference in the political action arena has never been more important than it is today,” Easterling said.

Beaumont said that operators, emboldened by the women’s movement in the 1970s, began holding national conferences in the early 1980s. More than 300 operators attended those early conferences — the first held in Milwaukee — shortly before the breakup of the Bell System. Operators then faced uncertain change, much as they do today.

Although voice-recognition technology has decimated operator ranks, customers continue to seek human contact. The conference explored possibilities for new services such as looking up movie listings or auto mechanics for customers.

“The company that survives will be the one that gives unique service, not the one that just drives the price down,” Beaumont said. “There has got to be a human voice at the other end of the line.”