Magazine article Insight on the News

Union Makes Wake-Up Call to Baby Bell

Magazine article Insight on the News

Union Makes Wake-Up Call to Baby Bell

Article excerpt

A humorous advertising campaign bolstered labor union's position in contract talks with phone company.

The most controversial comment in five months of bitter contract talks between Bell Atlantic Corp. and its union may have been a belch: The Communications Workers of America, or CWA, enlisted the same ad agency that handled Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign to create the burping, refrigerator-raiding, technology-challenged "Larry the Outside Contractor," star of an unusual $7 million television, radio, print and direct-mail public-relations effort to wrangle a better deal at the bargaining table.

"It was clearly designed to send a message to the company and its negotiators," says Jim Margolis, a partner at Greer, Margolis, Mitchell, Burns & Associates, the Washington firm that organized the campaign. "They've spent a lot of money building a public image. We're letting them know the public will hear the other side of the story."

Union leaders say tough new corporate tactics and weakened labor laws have made strikes far more difficult to win, leaving them grasping for new ways to exert bargaining pressure. Labor experts say such nontraditional tactics - sometimes known as "corporate campaigns" - will become more and more common.

"The CWA was just in no position to challenge Bell Atlantic head-on, so they have to start looking at alternatives," says Charles Perry, labor-policy professor at the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia.

With the previous three-year contract having run out in August, Bell Atlantic and CWA negotiators reached settlement in January. Union officials called the final deal "a total victory," crediting the ads with helping to pressure the company into agreeing to a package close to the union's original demands.

The stakes for both sides were high. Bell Atlantic sought more flexibility and lower costs in preparation for challenging AT&T and other telecommunications giants in a range of phone and information-service markets. The union was equally eager to negotiate a deal in line with its pacts with the six other regional phone companies. Concessions to Bell Atlantic - including a pay raise below the 10.9 percent, three-year agreement to which the other regional companies had agreed - would have set a damaging precedent. The union also was reeling from huge layoffs at AT&T and the prospect for more throughout the industry.

CWA spokesman Jeff Miller said the contract justifies the union's heavy investment in public relations. …

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