Maybe it was because it was past 2 p.m. on another dog-day afternoon in late August. Perhaps they’d just eaten a heavy lunch. Or maybe the half-dozen guys in matching red T-shirts were just tired.
Walking back and forth for hours on end along on an unshaded sidewalk outside a concrete building radiating heat can’t be easy. It sure didn’t look like much fun.
But whatever the cause of their fatigue, Bill Hunt and other members of the Communications Workers of America union weren’t about to let a little humidity make them stop.
They and thousands of other workers across the Southeast were on Day 3 of what would turn out to be a four-day labor action against AT&T.
The workers had exercised the most atrophied of American worker muscles — their right to union representation and collective bargaining for such things as decent health care, safe retirements and job security.
And in Winston-Salem, N.C., on a routine hot, humid summer afternoon it added up to the rarest of sights: an honest-to-God picket line with union workers out on strike.
“It’s an uphill battle, but we’ll fight alongside our brothers,” said Hunt, the president of local 3616.
The strike, such that it was, ended Wednesday — the very day after I wandered over to talk to Hunt and his fellow CWA workers.
They had been out in front of the AT&T building on 5th Street since Sunday and had been a source of (mild) curiosity for days as they walked back and forth carrying — and wearing — picket signs.
‘Unfair labor practices’
“We’re protesting unfair practices just trying to get (management) to the bargaining table to negotiate in good faith,” Hunt explained. “We’ve been trying to get a new contract since June.”
If I understood Hunt’s explanation correctly, the picket line wasn’t technically a strike. It was a “job action,” and the differences are subtle but important.
A strike is something open-ended and often acrimonious. A “job action” is finite and, as such, was designed to make management understand that the 22,000 CWA workers were not joking.
Whatever the technical term, Hunt and his fellow workers meant business. They were willing to walk a picket line and deal with stares and puzzled looks from passersby who have no idea what unions do.
Some people hear the word “union” and conjure up images of bloated, overpaid United Auto Workers killing Ford, GM and Chrysler. Others hear “Teamster” and think “mafia” or Jimmy Hoffa.
The job action in Winston-Salem and across nine other Southern states was more basic. In July, AT&T reported second-quarter profits of $3.7 billion, and union reps report that the company has eliminated more than 27,000 jobs since the 2017 tax cuts cleared the Congress.
No wonder the workers were upset.
“This isn’t about wages,” Hunt said. “They’re trying to do away with seniority and job titles. Young people don’t get pensions anymore.”
Lowest in the nation
Any given week in North Carolina, we’re far more likely to encounter the Ku Klux Klan than an American labor union — a hell of a thing to realize on Labor Day weekend.
AT&T and the Communications Workers of America worked out their differences in the middle of last week, and workers returned to their jobs.
Hunt said that local workers were received well by passersby on Fifth Street and at a second AT&T facility on the south side of town. “Several people came by and brought biscuits one day,” he said on the line Tuesday. “The Teamsters helped. The Green Party, too. We appreciate the support.”
But it’s dwindling. The U.S. Labor Department estimated in 2015 that North Carolina had the lowest union membership in the entire country at 1.9 percent of its wage and salary workers. Nationally, the figure was 11.1 percent. New York was the highest at 24.6 percent.
Meanwhile, over in Hillsborough, the emboldened KKK turned out a few dozen idiots Aug. 24 at the Orange County Courthouse to protest, among other things, a chocolate shop owner who’d posted a sign reading “Burn a Rebel Flag, Get a Free Chocolate.”
What a thin-skinned bunch of yahoos. An anti-hate rally Saturday drew more than 700, which was heartening.
I’ve been doing this kind of work in North Carolina for a long time. Longer than I’d really care to admit. In that time, I can remember at least a half-dozen Klan rallies in at least that many towns and cities.
And over that same quarter-century, Wednesday was my first time spending any time on a picket line. What a crazy thing to think about on a holiday specifically set aside to honor American labor and the power of collective action.