Morton Bahr, who led the Communications Workers of America during the most turbulent years of the communications industry and made the union a powerful force for working people, died on Tuesday, July 30 at age 93.
Bahr was elected CWA president in 1985, serving in that position for 20 years. He successfully led CWA through the turbulent technological and structural revolution that transformed telecommunications. His vision ensured that the union would continue as an effective advocate for working men and women long into the future, across communications, information technology and other sectors.
As President, Bahr pioneered model education and job training programs; negotiated innovative family benefits for workers, including child care and flexible work schedules; developed groundbreaking strategies like the “electronic picket line,” and held regular meetings with management, government and labor on the challenges of the global economy and the future of work.
He worked with President Bill Clinton on the Commission for a Nation of Lifelong Learners, who praised Bahr as a true visionary; with his friend Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy on fixing the nation’s broken health care system, and with countless elected officials on ways to make life better for working people.
His life was full of love for his wife and family, and his union. “This union has been my extended family. Whether you’re a shop steward, a local union officer, a staff rep or an officer, virtually every day you have the ability to help change somebody’s life,” he said in his last CWA convention address in 2005. “We are united, we are family, we are union.”
Bahr joined CWA in 1951 as a telegraph operator at MacKay Radio and Telegraph, helping to lead a successful organizing drive at the company known for “permanently replacing” striking workers. He was elected president of Local 1172 in 1954, then worked to build the union he loved over the next 51 years.
As vice president of CWA’s New York-New Jersey District 1, Bahr led a 218-day strike against New York Telephone in 1971, a predecessor company to Verizon that paved the way for national bargaining with AT&T in 1974. While the breakup of the industry in 1986 changed everything, Bahr, elected national president in 1985, would make certain that CWA was up to the challenge.
As the communications industry expanded into Internet technology, wireless, entertainment and other new businesses, Bahr developed new strategies to ensure that all workers in these “new technologies” had the opportunity for the voice and respect that comes with union representation. Mobilization, “wall- to- wall” bargaining, management neutrality and card check recognition were among the tools used to fight back against attacks on workers who wanted a union voice.
Also during Bahr’s tenure, several unions joined CWA, including the Association of Flight Attendants, the Newspaper Guild, National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, the International Union of Electronic Workers and the International Typographical Union.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1926, Bahr entered Brooklyn College at age 16, and played varsity baseball. His education was cut short by World War II, as Bahr enlisted in the Merchant Marine and served as a radio operator.
This experience of leaving college early drove Bahr’s passion and decades-long commitment to promote model distance learning and education programs for working people who often must balance job and family responsibilities and don’t have the opportunity for traditional college instruction. Bahr received his bachelor’s degree in 1983 at age 57, and was awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters degree from both Empire State College and University of Redlands. In 2001, the Morton Bahr Distance Learning Scholarship was established in his honor at SUNY Empire State College to help adult workers with full-time jobs pursue college studies.
After his retirement in 2005, Bahr continued to work with organizations that support lifelong learning and focus on providing affordable housing for seniors, serving as chair of the board of the Elderly Housing Development & Operations Corporation.
He is survived by his wife Florence, his son Dan and daughter Janice, four grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.