an economy that shifted from a promising future to broken promises: a little bit of history
both personal and political, a smorgasbord of food for thought and a
few possible solutions told from the worker’s point of
view to show how these economic actions and theories impact us down
here at the bottom..
Valley, California, were soaked to the skin within seconds under the
open sky and so were we: 35 of labor’s most dedicated activists wiping
our glasses and wringing out our union t-shirts. The slogans on our
picket signs ran down the poster board making them illegible. The
AT&T golf tournament was rained out. No big-name golfers, no media
would be showing up to take note of our protest.
I had just been elected as President of the Communications Workers
of America Local 9503, and I saw the Writing on the Wall. Work
performance pressures were mounting. Our members were getting
2 Dan McCrory
summarily fired for petty issues that had formerly earned them a slap
on the wrist. Employees were headed toward a big blowout against
management; I was afraid they would fire the wrong guy, the one with
a cache of firearms at home.
Hence the protest. Despite an empty parking lot we still managed
to anger Chuck Smith, the corporation’s VP in charge of the golf
tournament. The only outcome we saw from our four-hour ordeal
was a little vengeance from AT&T: they were hiring anywhere but in
my local’s jurisdiction. I was informed I could fix the situation. “You
need to tell Chuck you’re sorry,” a high-ranking manager told me. I
apologized in the only way that I could without choking on my words: I
was sorry, I said, for actions by the company that had led to my decision
to protest. It mollified his ego; work again flowed into 9503’s turf.
Thank God I was wrong about the level of angst on the shop floor! In
retrospect, I realized that the rank-and-file wasn’t up in arms and the
status quo prevailed because the members didn’t share my perspective,
they couldn’t see the big bleak panorama that I could from my seat of
responsibility. They didn’t realize that AT&T was not just harassing
folks in their department; it was happening company-wide.
As a new CWA local president, I also walked into the largest layoff
southern California had ever encountered in the telecommunications
industry with jobs disappearing in California and reappearing in Rightto-
Work, Texas, headquarters for our parent company SBC, a corporation
that morphed into the New and Improved (leaner and meaner) AT&T.
And, of course, there were the thousands of tech support jobs in India
and the Philippines.
How did my union members get to this point? The telecommunications
industry was changing rapidly. First, there was the breakup of the
Ma Bell monopoly in 1984 that dismantled the oligarchy that had
stifled competition and innovation for almost a century while providing
slow and steady growth on the stock market and a safe womb-like
environment for employees. Now, in the 21st century, management
crowed almost daily that their market was shifting away from POTS,
Plain Ol’ Telephone Service, the wire-line business overseen and
Capitalism Killed the Middle Class 3
scrutinized and regulated by commissions both state and federal, to
mobile service. Now everybody had a phone and took it with them. The
family had either pulled the plug on the home phone or kept it in the
corner for emergencies, gathering dust, voicemails ignored.
Breaking up is hard to do.
By court order, the old AT&T was chopped up into seven regional
Bell companies. On December 31, 1983, I worked for AT&T, as did
everyone in my 8-story building. On January 1, 1984, I no longer
worked for AT&T; I was now an employee of Pacific Bell. Our building
was split. Assets, including employees, were clearly divided. My friends
who remained with AT&T continued working in half the building
while we toiled away on our own respective floors.
Mere months later my friends and former co-workers at the old AT&T
were introduced to the concept of downsizing, a fancy corporate term
used alternately with “rightsizing,” to show that balancing the work and
the workforce meant consolidation of responsibilities, and apparently
sometimes meant that an employee had to follow their work to another
floor or across the country.
Thanks to union negotiations, not corporate largesse, there was relocation
pay, or jobs available for local transfer, often at a lower pay scale, and there
was always “voluntary termination” for those who didn’t want to uproot
their families or couldn’t subsist on a substantial cut in pay. Without a
union, as we saw in other industries, there were no options.
Henry Ford didn’t like unions, but he did say, “Make the best quality of
goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.”
What is capitalism? Do capitalism and democracy go hand in hand
or can one exist without the other?
Capitalism is our system of trade and, if conducted in a fair and equitable
manner, reaps benefits for all concerned. But all the trade agreements
bargained so far have lacked sufficient labor and environmental
4 Dan McCrory
There are other forms of capitalism, incorporating checks and balances,
that could rein in the excesses of our “marketing arm,” the unfettered
relentless pursuit of growth and market share prevalent in a capitalistic
society, while adhering to the tenets and values that make us a
democratic nation envied by many around the world. Most of us were
raised to believe that if we struggled hard enough and played by the
rules, we could get ahead and earn our part of the American Dream.
We were also taught that it was better to be poor and noble than rich
and heartless. There are invisible forces at play: merciless, unforgiving,
unrelenting in their pursuit of total control. “Absolute power corrupts
absolutely.” A friend shared the refrain she heard from her sorority sisters
and fraternity brothers, future CEOs and corporate board members, at
her alma mater: “At other colleges were taught how the world is run; at
Harvard, we’re taught how to run the world.”
Is it any wonder that people think the system is gamed against them?
If we weren’t spoon-fed our news and our daily diet of reality shows
and sitcoms, would we sit idly by while our food and environment are
polluted, our schools are underfunded, CEOs rake off millions in profit
and buy elections, and our children shell out hundreds of thousands for
student loans they’ll never be able to pay off?