Still strength in union numbers?

The last year or so has not been an easy one for the telecom industry's rank and file employees, particularly those who are members of unions.

Going back to the summer of 2008, union members had to sweat through an expired contract and slow, difficult contract negotiations with Verizon Communications during which a strike was barely avoided and a lot of mud was slung. The result was a new contract that included decent raises and kept benefits intact for existing employees, but took the previously unforeseen measure of withholding post-retirement benefits for any new union hires, a concept that other telcos seemed to latch onto as the year went on.

Next, union types at Qwest Communications waited out their own expired contract and watched a strike deadline pass until they finally did get a new, tentative contract-which they then promptly rejected in a full union vote. Qwest union members got a revised deal for their trouble, one that boosted raises over a longer span of years, but which still included higher healthcare premiums for employees.

This spring and summer, it was AT&T's turn, as the telco giant negotiated with union groups in several different regional districts. The result so far is a tentative contract for District 4, but one which very well could be rejected, if comments posted to FierceTelecom's contract deal story over the last two weeks are any indication.

Meanwhile, amid the contract negotiations and disputes and overall bad vibes, telcos have continued to cut jobs, with reductions announced by Qwest, AT&T and Verizon last winter and earlier this year, and more job cuts announced by Verizon just days ago. The companies point to ongoing landline losses and overall soft business performance on the wireline side as reasons for the cuts.

As all of this has happened, one of the trends that easily can be seen building amid the hundreds of comments posted is dissatisfaction with the unions themselves. Many workers are getting tired of paying union dues, and then seeing progressively weaker contracts with benefit program structures that may take still more money out of their wallets. Increasingly, questions are being raised about the ongoing validity of unions in an industry where so-called cutting-edge business units like wireless and broadband are not heavily unionized, but are becoming more responsible for a greater portion of telco revenue. The job losses are cleaving limbs from the not-so-cutting-edge (but highly important, we tend to forget) traditional wireline business, and in some cases moving some of those jobs to those less unionized sectors.

So, in 2009, what is a union good for, if it can't get you a contract you're completely satisfied with, or at least save your job? In several U.S. industries-not just telecom-the same question is being asked, and the conclusion that some employees are coming to is "not much." Workplace laws and rights are much more progressive then they were in the heyday of powerful unions. Now, as the forces of retired employees grow beyond historical understanding, benefit costs are becoming the issue that corporations can't, or won't, budge on. In telecom, companies need to reorganize their workforces around the biggest revenue-generating centers and away from the areas where revenue is sliding, yet there is the additional pressure for them to ensure traditional levels of reliable service. The pace at which jobs are being lost is gradual, but it will only continue for the foreseeable future.

Companies are changing, the nature of their businesses is changing and how they make their money is changing. In this environment, unions can try to hold their position, but they only will be giving in by degrees. So, what needs to happen? Should unions be disbanded? Or do individual workers need to better adjust their expectations according to the new realities? Both? And, if the union can't help you, will you do better trying to help yourself in a new world where it's every man and woman for themselves?

The one hope left to cling to for any rank and file worker is that the network can't build, run and repair itself-not yet anyway.