By Stan Santos
I will tell you what the labor movement means to those who have shared the road. We travel with a swirling mass of men and women, humans and history. We travel with the spirits. If you have carried the banner of labor, you have felt the weight of many generations and a proud tradition of struggle. At times, we are carried on the shoulders of others, and then suddenly, it is our turn to do the lifting. Our steel is tested every day: on the shop floor, in investigations, “discipline” and management meetings, and in the yards and streets where our members ply their trades.
We have to work harder than the other side, think strategically, anticipate and plan. We have to use limited resources wisely in a lopsided battle against powerful corporate giants and government agencies. We lose more elections than we win.
CWA versus AT&T
I have been a splicing technician and representative of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) since 1999. We are currently locked in tense negotiations with the international telecommunications giant AT&T, ranked seventh in the United States based on annual revenues of more than $123 billion.
To AT&T and the corporations that run this country, the lives of workers and their families are nothing but data points on a spread sheet. My time spent working on telephone poles and in pits and manholes is measured in minutes. Time for inside work groups, like assembly line workers in China, is measured in seconds. We face increasing productivity programs, always at risk of suspension or termination for “efficiency,” “repeats” or poor sales. Technicians are subject to required overtime, sometimes working for weeks doing repairs and maintenance under extreme conditions and weather, without a day off.
I was at my desk in the union hall one October afternoon a few years ago, contemplating a daunting pile of grievances, National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaints and docs on my computer screen when I learned about “Jesus” (his real name will remain undisclosed). Our office manager entered, her eyes swelling with tears. She could only manage to say, “Jesus was killed in an accident last night on his way home.” The disbelief gave way to a wave of grief as I buried my face in my hands and cried. I reached the lowest point in my years as a labor advocate. I thought back to the last time I spoke with Jesus.
A Proud Lineman
In 2007, Jesus was a lineman for AT&T. If you encountered him on the street, you would see a young Chicano with a compact but powerful build and an easy smile behind his goatee and dark glasses. He had a wife and three small children and had been with the company for several years—an eager, intelligent and well-liked employee. He was also an excellent technician, receiving high marks from his co-workers and supervisors, sometimes taking on jobs that required two men and completing them with surprising speed.
One day, after being told to report for a mandatory drug test, he told his supervisor he might have marijuana in his system. Jesus was terminated with no consideration for his years of service or his family. We fought for months to get his job back, before submitting his case for arbitration, where it languished for almost two years.
Jesus did not wait around for some kind of settlement. He had a house payment and a family to feed, so he went to work for a contractor line crew. In a short while, he was one of their top performers, even pulling into the AT&T construction yard to pick up material for contracted line projects. He told me he worked Monday through Thursday on the coast, then traveled home to his family.
In September 2009, we heard the words that we had long waited for: AT&T offered to return Jesus to work, although there was a catch. The union had to agree to withdraw the arbitration case and our demand for two years of lost wages. I can still hear the echo of his words and sense of relief after I told him, “Tell them of course I’ll take it. For the last two years all I could think about was how I wished I could get my job back at AT&T. I can’t wait to tell my wife, she will be so happy.” It was late one night a few weeks later when Jesus died, somewhere between Highway 5 and home.
The Value of a Worker’s Life
Within a few days of Jesus’ memorial service, I had to attend a mass for another technician and CWA member in Tulare. He was on repairs, during forced overtime on a Sunday, when he felt ill and called his supervisor. He was denied permission to go home “due to the needs of the business.” He continued to work, finally calling his wife and seeking medical attention. He died later that day.
We started off 2012 with the death of a technician who was working in Madera. After finishing work on a business circuit, he simply went out to his van, sat down and died. He was discovered hours later by the customer. The GPS system installed in every vehicle “for our safety” was of no help.
In recent years, we have had members in our local and throughout the state who died due to electrocution, vehicle accidents and other hazards that we face every day. Others suffer life-altering disabilities from falls, cuts and repetitive stress injuries. And their families suffer the consequences of a livelihood derived from high stress and oppressive working conditions.
This month, we celebrate May Day and Memorial Day. Both are historic dates in the labor movement. I honor them by remembering the promise: We will mourn our dead and fight like hell for the living.
Stan Santos is an activist in the labor and immigrant community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.