Communications Workers of America

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COMMUNICATIONS WORKERS OF AMERICA (CWA) began as an employee association in the Bell System just after the end of World War I. At the start of the twenty-first century, it was the largest U.S. communications and media union, made up of some 1,200 charter local unions representing more than 700,000 members, who work in telecommunications, general manufacturing, electronics, gas and electric utilities, and other fields. As of 2000, the CWA had successfully negotiated more than 2,000 collective bargaining agreements granting its members higher wages, benefits, better working conditions, and training and educational programs with child-and family-care provisions. Some of the leading employers of CWA members are: American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), the Regional Bell telephone companies, General Telephone and Electric, General Electric, Disney, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the state of New Jersey, and leading newspapers. The CWA's broad organizing success in fields beyond the U.S. telephone industry helped make it one of the most visible and effective industrial unions in the history of American labor.

Company Union Roots

From 1878 to 1895, the U.S. telephone industry remained virtually free of union activity, thanks to the vigorous anti-union stance of the Bell System, the largest U.S. telephone company, which was owned and operated by AT&T. Despite some early organization drives by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and other affiliates of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), American telephone workers remained largely nonunion.

The growing dominance of U.S. telephony by AT&T and the Bell System emerged by the time of America's entry into World War I. In 1917, Bell's employee ranks swelled to over 199,000, while those of smaller (non-Bell) telephone companies rose to only 46,000. Corporate control of the industry was temporarily ceded when a strike by the IBEW in November 1917 prompted the federal government to take control of American telephony to ensure continuous service and to maintain the secrecy of wartime communications. After the war, the IBEW leadership resumed its union activities, but refused to provide full union membership to women telephone operators.

In 1919 the IBEW struck again with some 25,000 Bell employees, at the time about 9 percent of the industry's 278,000 workers. The strike was short-lived, however, as many workers stayed on the job. After the strike, most workers were compelled to join Bell's new company unions under the threat of losing their seniority and pension rights. These organizations were patterned after similar company union structures established by Western Union Telegraph, Standard Oil of New Jersey, and U.S. Steel. (A 1935 Department of Labor study later found that most company unions drafted employee labor agreements without consulting workers and they rarely led to the substantive improvement of wages, benefits, or working conditions.)

New Deal Changes

With the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, trade unions became legal in the vast majority of U.S. industries. Four years later, company unions were made illegal with the Supreme Court's affirmation of the Wagner Act in 1937. Acting with the overwhelming support of management, who wished to preserve as much control as possible, telephone workers that same year formed the National Federation of Telephone Workers (NFTW), a confederation of former company unions. While the new NFTW constitution continued to provide local autonomy for Bell telephone workers and generous pension rights, the confederation arrangement also served as a barrier to national unionization because it tended to favor the former company union leadership. Management continued to play a strong role in the NFTW by providing work release time and other financial incentives. The Bell System's main objective through this period was to comply with federal law and, at the same time, ensure that telephone workers did not join forces with unions affiliated with the AFL or the more militant Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

After 1941, organization drives by the IBEW, and the CIO-affiliated American Communications Association (ACA) and United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), were not successful against the NFTW. From 1939 to 1945, NFTW membership almost quadrupled (from 45,000 to 170,000).

NFTW Becomes CWA

After World War II, telephone workers, under the direction of NFTW president Joseph Beirne, moved to counter the centralized power of the Bell System by building a national union. The growing militancy of the NFTW—made more extreme with wartime deprivations and a newer, younger, and lower-paid workforce—led to a strike threat in 1946. Although the strike never materialized, the threat substantially helped to raise telephone workers' wages.

One year later, the union did strike over the issue of industry-wide bargaining, which the Bell System (and parent AT&T) historically opposed. While the NFTW lost the 1947 strike, the work stoppage helped to bring telephone workers together in an unprecedented manner. The rank and file argued for a reorganization of NFTW bylaws to create a national union of telephone workers (the Communication Workers of America), rather than a series of autonomous local chapters. Seeking to block the new CWA formation, the CIO created the Telephone Workers' Organizing Committee (TWOC), as a means to attract some of the more militant CWA factions. When faced with the prospect of joining the AFL-affiliated IBEW, the CWA merged with the TWOC and became the CIO's fourth largest union in 1949.

CWA president Beirne's success in winning large wage increases and system-wide bargaining from the Bell System also helped the union to become influential in national and local Democratic politics as the CWA fought for wider social and economic reforms. In 1950, CWA membership was 180,000 workers, which grew to 260,000 in 1960. Two decades later, CWA membership was more than 500,000. The CWA's ranks continued to swell with new members in telephone and other communication industries as it focused on the rapid convergence of media technologies in the workplace. At the start of the twenty-first century, the CWA was one of the most politically active and powerful U.S. industrial labor unions.


Bahr, Morton. From the Telegraph to the Internet: A 60 Year History of the CWA. Washington, D.C.: National Press Books, 1998.

Fink, Gary, ed. Labor Unions. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Palladino, Grace. Dreams of Dignity, Workers of Vision: A History of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Washington, D.C.: International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 1991.

Schacht, John. The Making of Telephone Unionism, 1920–1947. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985.

Dennis W.Mazzocco

See alsoAT&T ; Communications Industry ; Trade Unions .

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