- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2000

The labor force of the growing wireless telecommunications industry looks like fertile ground for unions.

With few employees of wireless phone companies in unions, Verizon Communications could be the first in a string of companies that the Communications Workers of America tries to organize.

"The CWA is better situated than any other union to try to organize companies in that industry," said Greg Tarpinian, executive director of the Labor Research Association, a research firm in New York.

The CWA, with 630,000 members, is pushing to get wireless telephone industry workers into unions so workers can share in the prosperity of the nation's high-tech boom. A victory by labor at Verizon, the largest U.S. mobile-phone company with about 24 million wireless subscribers, could help the CWA's organizing drive.

Companies say the wireless telecommunications industry pays workers high wages and good employees are in demand, making unions unnecessary.

Negotiators for Verizon and two unions representing 87,200 of its workers are trying to complete contract negotiations. The previous contract expired at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

Among the issues, the CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers want access to employees in Verizon's wireless division so they can attempt to bring them into unions. Only 60 of the 32,000 workers at Verizon's wireless division are union members.

Wireless subsidiaries at other companies have equally small union work forces.

"We're trying to take care of that," CWA spokesman Jeff Miller said.

AT&T; Wireless has 21,000 workers. Until earlier this year, none of them was a union member. But a group of 120 workers in West Palm Beach, Fla., has voted to join the CWA, and contract talks are under way, AT&T; Wireless spokesman Ken Woo said.

BellSouth Cellular, a division of BellSouth Corp., has 10,700 workers, but no one is a union member.

McLean, Va.-based Nextel Communications Inc. has 13,000 workers. Sprint PCS, a division of Missouri-based long-distance carrier Sprint Corp., has 10,700 workers. Unions haven't penetrated either Nextel or Sprint's wireless division.

Work forces at wireless telephone companies are growing, making it even more important to unions that they organize now.

"Wireless services not only support traditional phone service, in some cases it's replacing it. Unions are of a view that they have to position themselves in wireless or they will be in an increasingly obsolete industry," said Andy Lipman, a telecommunications attorney.

Low unemployment and a vigorous economy could give unions leverage in negotiations because employees are a valuable commodity, analysts said.

"Right now is the time to strike," Mr. Tarpinian said.

But phone companies aren't eager to be union targets.

"When it comes to high tech, labor unions are an anachronism," said one phone company executive.

"I'm sure every wireless company is watching. But I wouldn't characterize it as concern. I'd characterize it as interest," Nextel representative Audrey Schaefer said.

Of an estimated 1.8 million communications workers, 437,000 are in unions, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey. The survey doesn't indicate how many of those workers are employed at wireless companies.

Americans' participation in labor unions has declined the past 25 years as the nation's economy has shifted from a manufacturing to a service-based economy. Unions have searched for new industries to unionize to maintain their influence in the workplace.

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