Cwa Leader Sees Evolving American Labor Force, Workplace

Article excerpt

From his office at Judiciary Square in downtown Washington, Morton Bahr can see the Capitol and beyond it, to the south, the rolling hills of Northern Virginia. Looking a bit farther, he sees a rapidly evolving American labor force and workplace.

Bahr is president of the Communications Workers of America, a union that has had to adapt rapidly to technological changes. He also heads the AFL-CIO's workplace innovation committee and serves on President Bill Clinton's advisory committee on technology.

The 550,000-member union, which has 20,000 members in Missouri, will begin a key convention next week in Detroit. Organizing and political action top the agenda.

The CWA started as a company union in 1938, representing telephone operators under the American Plan in the old Bell system. That history gives its leaders a skeptical view of the "team" concepts for labor-management relations currently being discussed.

Though the breakup of AT&T and other developments over the past decade cost about 100,000 jobs, the union's membership has remained stable because it has branched into various fields, Bahr said.

CWA members now include broadcast engineers, law enforcement officials, government employees and journalists. "We're moving away from industrial unionism to professionalism," Bahr said in an interview this week.

Convention delegates will hear from Hillary Clinton, Dick Gephardt, John Sweeney and the head of the Federal Communications Commission, a key agency for the CWA because it must implement the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996. Sweeney, who won the AFL-CIO presidency last fall over Tom Donahue, was invited "largely to get the press to understand that even though I supported Donahue, this election's over," Bahr said.

Bahr hopes to see a constitutional amendment to require CWA to devote 10 percent of its revenue to organizing. About 6 percent usually goes to unionizing efforts. The hope is to institutionalize recruiting programs and encourage locals to act similarly. …