TCS Daily

Online Learning Clicks Workers Through To The New Economy, Union Leader Bahr Tells TCS

By James K. Glassman - August 15, 2001 12:00 AM

Lifetime jobs are a thing of the past, Communications Workers of America President Morton Bahr says. Instead, lifelong learning is the key to "employment security," he tells Tech Central Station Host James K. Glassman. Bahr points to his union`s joint programs with AT&T, other technology companies and the military as models for the private sector. The Internet makes it possible for everyone, though he warns financial and tax barriers can get in the way. "But one point I`d like to stress is that there is absolutely no reason for workers with any incentive, particularly where we represent them, to ever remain in a dead-end job," he said. On other issues, Bahr says CWA won`t take a position on the Tauzin-Dingell legislation, which would allow Bell operating companies into data long-distance services, unless it has a real chance of passing. He did chide Verizon, though, saying it was doing "a real piss-poor job at getting DSL out to the customers." And his union will continue to oppose enhanced trade-negotiating authority for the president that doesn`t include requirements for labor and environmental standards.

James K. Glassman: The Communications Workers of America, bills itself as "The union for the information age," and you have been a key player in the lifelong learning movement. How are these elements relevant in an era of global competition?

Morton Bahr: Coming from an industry that was a monopoly for nearly 100 years, we bring a different viewpoint than many of my colleagues in the private sector. When it became certain in September 1984 that I was going to be elected president the next year, I began to talk to people in the top-management level at AT&T. I already had begun to understand the world around the vast majority of our members had changed. No longer could a high school graduate go to the nearest telephone company office and get a reasonably good-paying job -- one of the better-paying blue-collar jobs and white-collar jobs -- and retire 30 years later, oftentimes from the same work location.

Glassman: What were the changes in the world you saw happening?

Bahr: There were several things that changed that were beyond our control. First was the introduction of competition into the industry, both domestically and globally. This had been a uniquely domestic industry because an antitrust settlement back in the `50s resulted in Western Electric not being allowed to sell any of its products abroad. Secondly, there was the move towards rapid deregulation of the industry. And finally, there is now the rapid escalation of technology.

Glassman: How was it different regarding technology when there was no competition?

Bahr: In the monopoly days, the Bell laboratories did not introduce the next generation of technology until they bled every last dollar out of the marketplace, because there was nobody else who was going to do it. As a result, technology was introduced into the workplace at a very humane pace, in a very humane way. Workers could be taken off the job from six to nine months to be trained. In the new environment, where you have lean and mean competitors, that is no longer possible. So I began to think of changing the culture within the union. It was not easy, though, moving from an objective of providing our members with job security by the old definition to a new one of employment security. By employment security, we mean how do we make our members more employable, hopefully with the company where they are employed at the time, but, if not, in the general marketplace. That change, though, led to the first major breakthrough in the telecommunications industry with the establishment of the joint partnership between AT&T and CWA -- the Alliance for Employee Growth and Development.

Bahr on the Growth in High-Tech Learning

"In the past 15 years, more than 170,000 have participated in specific courses, such as certification programs from Microsoft to college degree courses to PhDs."

Glassman: What is that?

Bahr: The Alliance, incorporated in 1986, is a nonprofit corporation, incorporated in 1986. It`s funded through the collective bargaining agreement. It`s jointly managed, with union and management having the same number of members for the board of directors along with two managing directors, one I appoint and one appointed by AT&T. Its sole purpose is to provide education and training for union-represented employees of AT&T. In the past 15 years, more than 170,000 have participated in specific courses, such as certification programs from Microsoft to college degree courses to PhDs. What we`ve seen is specific courses of training improve workers ability to promote and show fulfillment.

Glassman: How specifically does the program work online? Do classes take place during the day or after hours?

Bahr: Well, when you`re online, it`s pretty much your own time. We have an extraordinarily high rate of personal computer ownership at home because of the very nature of the industry. In addition, companies like Qwest have already agreed to permit workers who are taking online courses to come before work or stay after work and use the company`s PCs. That makes it makes it a lot easier for people, as you don`t need a PC at home and you can get your work done before you get home. So we try to remove all the obstacles.

Online Learning Tax Incentives

Glassman: Members themselves don`t have to pay anything for these courses, is that correct?

Bahr: No, members do not have to pay. In fact, the Alliance is totally different because it takes care of everything. But take Qwest, which has a program similar to the Alliance, called Pathways to the Future. There we have an extraordinarily high enrollment continuously in college degree courses. The plan pays the full amount, including tuition. It`s an up-front payment in all of the companies. We found, for example, that in 1995 when the Congress permitted Section 127 of the IRS Code to lapse, we had an extraordinary drop-off in participation as people began to have withholding tax taken out of their checks. Then, the actual payments by the employer became taxable as regular income. Of course, now we have at least until 2011, $5,250 a year in tuition that`s tax free, and it includes graduate work, which is very positive.

Glassman: Your union deals mainly with the country`s largest, most established corporations, but what about smaller companies? Do you think that perhaps tax incentives might increase online learning for them?

Bahr: Tax incentives could very well increase it. But with the availability online for virtually any course you want to take, the community colleges are great. They will tailor for the smallest employer anything the employer needs. Empire State College in New York is good that way. But, still, an employer that has 10 or 15 employees may not be able to afford the tuition. So I have talked with and told Jerry Jasinowski at the National Association of Manufacturers who has a ton of small employers about ways of dealing with that. Until we get a tax credit, bundling a group of employers together to share the cost might be helpful. Most small employers, though, are not thinking down this line yet.

Glassman: What about non-union high-tech companies, where do they fit in?

Bahr: Well, we`re doing a lot of work with Cisco Systems. We have one program for outgoing military -- we do the training and job placement; they provide the equipment. We are now working on a request from the Department of Defense to see if we can develop a program that would entice re-enlistment into the armed services. That indicates our program to help guys and gals get out of the service was successful (laughter). You know, they get out, generally in their mid-40s. They have a good work ethic. Many are already taking college-level courses or technical courses. So to get a pretty good job in addition to your service pension is pretty attractive. But one point I`d like to stress is that there is absolutely no reason for workers with any incentive, particularly where we represent them, to ever remain in a dead-end job. Telephone operators provide an example. There are tens of thousands of them, and it took a little time to get their attention. I got it by repetition, saying they were not going to be in that job long enough to retire from the company for which they worked unless they were almost ready for retirement. But there were alternatives. The alternatives were to avail themselves of the education programs that we had negotiated. They have responded by the hundreds. Many of them are in technical jobs now.

Glassman: So what kind of courses will they take?

Bahr: They can take courses leading to an associate degree in communications technology, which qualifies them for good-paying jobs. In New York, there are 40-hour-per-week technicians` jobs paying $1,300 a week, with a full benefit package. They`re moving into those jobs. Now, they`re not anxious to climb telephone poles, but there are many other jobs that don`t require that. So, that`s been very gratifying. And it`s not only in the telephone company. At Lucent Technologies, before they came on hard times, we had as many as 500 people in distance learning, with the first degreed graduate being an African-American woman in Nashville. So it demonstrates that it`s a good affirmative action program without ever labeling it as such.

Glassman: Are there any barriers to workers to participate in these online programs?

Bahr: It will not be successful unless the union really works at it. Some employers with the downturn of the economy are looking to cut corners, for business travel and so on. We are beginning to see some companies holding back on their responsibility to get word out to employees for the new September term. I`m sure it`s not that they want to eliminate the program, but rather to limit the enrollment. So, if instead of 1,000 people enrolling only 500 enroll, they`ve saved tens of thousands of dollars. The union, however, is notifying the employees of the enrollment date.

Bahr on Tauzin-Dingell

"We are, for the time being, neutral for a specific reason. ...Now, if it passes the House, and if the scenario changes in the Senate, we`ll take a position, because we`re not going to sit it out."

Glassman: Let me ask you a couple questions that are not directly related to online learning but where your union may have a concern. The Tauzin-Dingell bill (to allow the regional Bell operating companies to enter data long-distance services) is the biggest piece of telecom legislation since the Telecommunications ACT of 1996; does CWA have a position on this?

Bahr: We are, for the time being, neutral for a specific reason. First, AT&T is opposed to it; the Bell operating companies are in favor of it. Secondly, there is no reason to believe there`s going to be a Senate bill that will be passed. My conversations with the leadership in the Senate indicate that they do not plan to have a viable bill. Therefore, I just don`t see a reason for this union to choose up sides for something that`s not going to get to the White House to be signed. Now, if it passes the House, and if the scenario changes in the Senate, we`ll take a position, because we`re not going to sit it out. We`ll take a position on what we ultimately think is better for the consumers of this nation. Some employees are not going to like it. We have not run any ad in connection with Tauzin-Dingell.

Glassman: I thought I saw a CWA ad in Washington about it.

Bahr: Well, it had to do with Verizon and that`s regard to an ongoing dispute we have with them where we`re talking about DSL. They`re doing a real piss-poor job at getting DSL out to the customers.

Glassman: I thought the point of the ad was that they`re asking for legislation and yet ...

Bahr: Yeah, that`s true. You`re a little more astute than the average subscriber.

Glassman: The next question is about trade promotion authority. CWA opposes trade promotion authority. Is there any way that the administration could persuade you to change your position on that?

Bahr: No. We`re locked in with the AFL-CIO. I think the Jordan Agreement that`s been approved took a gigantic step because it was the first agreement that actually spells out labor and environmental rights in a trade agreement. Now, it`s true it`s questionable whether there`ll be sanctions against anybody in the country that violates it. But it`s such a long step in the right direction that we wonder why the Administration is ready to go down that road in approving the agreement that President Clinton had negotiated but not get anywhere near that with the Free Trade Areas of the Americas.


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