False Promises? Communications Workers of America Labor-Management Partnerships in the 1990s
Debbie Goldman, University of Maryland
False Promises analyzes three labor-management partnerships between the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and three leading telecommunications companies in the 1990s. These joint initiatives aimed to redesign the jobs of customer service representatives in the highly stressful, bureaucratic, automated legacy Bell telephone company call centers. Female union leaders led the job redesign projects, hopeful that they could transform these good-paying yet routinized jobs into ones that gave the women greater autonomy and less stress at work. Despite much progress, these labor-management partnerships died when corporate executives succumbed to Wall Street pressure to prioritize maximizing short-term shareholder value over longer-term investments in the workforce. The triumph of the financial model of the firm sealed the death knell for managements’ interest in sharing power with workers and the union in designing new work systems. By locating my discussion of the joint labor-management programs in the context of the larger story of the transition of the U.S. economy and business practices from corporate to financial capitalism and from managerial to the financial model of the firm, accompanied by the decline of labor union power, I offer an explanation for what I consider a tragic moment of lost opportunity for U.S. workers and their unions. The paper is a chapter in a book project, Resistance in the Digital Workplace: Call Center Workers in Bell Telephone Companies, 1965-2005, currently under contract with University of Illinois Press.
Respondent: Michael Stamm, Michigan State University
About the Labor History Seminar
The Newberry Labor History Seminar provides a forum for works in progress that explore the history of working class people, communities, and culture; class and state policy; unions and popular political movements; and other related topics.