The Paula Gordon Show
'Cooperation' New Union Slogan

Gene Russo

Gene C. Russo was born in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in Miami, Florida. Deciding not to follow his father into the Butchers' Union, Gene went to work for Southern Bell (then part of AT&T, now BellSouth) as a Cable Helper in 1953. He joined the Communications Workers of America (CWA) (http://www.cwa-union.org) his first day of work. He rose from Miami local Vice President to local President (1966-1972). Appointed to a CWA staff position in Georgia in 1972, he served as Regional Vice President (responsible for 9 Southeastern states) from 1987 until June, 1996.  On retiring, he continued as Special Assistant to Morton Bahr, President of the CWA.

Gene has been active in local, statewide and National Democratic Party politics, the United Way, the Georgia Governor's Employment and Training Council, and the National Advisory Board on Community Services. He and his wife Ann live in Cumming, Georgia, have four children and six grandchildren.

The survival of companies worldwide will increasingly depend on cooperation -- not confrontation -- between workers and management. Organized Labor has learned that. And as unions "re-invent" themselves, they will have an increasingly vital role to play in the emerging global marketplace. That's the prediction of Gene Russo, retired recently as regional head of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) (http://cwa-union.org) for the nine Southeastern United States. The CWA is part of the AFL-CIO. It's regional vice-presidents report to the CWA's president in Washington.

In conversation with Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, Gene shares his first hand experience with the dramatically new role organized labor is poised to play in the America and the world. Russo believes workers are as concerned about the viability of companies as management. "Unions are vitally interested in companies succeeding. Companies need to wake up. Involve unions in major issues."

Russo sees unions' greatest potential for growth in the service sector. "Unions do not recruit members, companies do. If companies treated their people decently, if they had fair grievance procedures, no one would join a union. We're seeing the growing need for representation in every part of the service sector from fast foods to medicine. When workers have no input, no way to air their concerns, they can't turn to the government any more. Only unions can help now. And everybody knows it."

Russo sees unions re-inventing themselves. He predicts today's 80-some AFL-CIO unions will consolidate down to 10 or 12 over the next ten to fifteen years. "For years, companies were smart -- they didn't fight the unions, unions fought each other. That's changed. Look at the CWA. 'Communication Workers' has a whole new meaning. Television camerapeople and newspaper typographers come to union meetings and sit beside telephone workers and police. Forty percent of today's CWA members come from companies we did not represent in 1984."

Russo calls for companies and unions both to face their own fears, to "wake up" to the need for cooperation in time to save companies -- and jobs -- caught in gale force winds of a rapidly changing global marketplace. "Any union leader worth his or her salt is there to provide jobs as well as good pay. No jobs, no members."

Excerpts

Conversation 1

Gene Russo, former Regional Vice-President of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) (http://www.cwa-union.org) tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell about his strong family roots in the union movement. He describes CWA's history, starting in 1938 strictly for telephone workers who wanted one voice about their pensions. Since then, there have been dramatic changes. "In a short time, telephone workers will be minority in CWA."


Conversation 2

Gene describes how unions have "re-invented" themselves in response to dramatic, sweeping historical changes in America. I see the union movement reinventing itself. A lot of it is a result of downsizing." He gives an example of 3 elections the CWA has just won after 35 years of trying to organize. Government's decreased role in addressing employee concerns is a factor. Now, only the unions can help." He sees this happening worldwide.

The unions' decline was their own fault. "Unions became strong through the industrialization of America. Then they sat back, decided they didn't have to organize. All of a sudden, we found out the world wasn't going to come to us anymore!"


Conversation 3

The "tragedy of downsizing" is companies laying people off and, the very next day, bringing in contract workers to do the same work -- both management and labor. "It causes havoc in people's lives."

However, he is clear that companies HAD to downsize. "One of my greatest contributions became one of my greatest failures. I saw downsizing coming. The CWA entered into a 'Quality' program with BellSouth. The idea was that the union would help the company recognize problems before they happened. Unfortunately, when it came time for the downsizing, the company hired a consultant who told them how to downsize and left the union totally out of picture." Morale problems resulted. He has similar stories nationwide and believes problems are exacerbated by a national trend away from long term planning and by Wall Street's fixation with quarterly earning.


Conversation 4

Russo describes trends within unions. "Unions are consolidating. For years, the companies were smart. They didn't fight the unions. The unions fought each other, everybody going after same pool of workers. Now that's rare." For example, in the CWA, "Anyone who 'communicates' is a communications worker." The CWA represents police, computer technicians and university people, welfare supervisors and hospital workers as well as telephone workers. "It's a world-wide trend."

Training and other benefits are now part of bargaining. "We used to have a program financed through bargaining to train people at BellSouth for future jobs. Now we realize there won't be that many jobs. So we're allowing people to be retrained to create new careers outside the telephone industry. The jobs won't be here."

He describes moves by companies and unions to begin to work together. "If you don't have a competitive company, the company will make no profit. They don't need employees, I don't have union members. So union leaders are directly worried about the company's viability."


Conversation 5

Changes in the telecommunications industry have far reaching consequences. "The industry has changed from one that produced a tremendous number of jobs to one where a computer can switch circuits with no human beings involved."

If everyone's on the street through downsizing, who's going to buy things? "What's happening is that people are organizing. The income level of people we're organizing is much, much lower than what telephone workers make. Forty percent of CWA's members come from a company we did not represent in 1984. We had to reinvent ourselves!" Unions see the greatest growth potential in medicine where national chains are replacing local hospitals. Now Physician's are joining unions. Automobile dealerships are similarly changing radically; there sales people will also be signing up. "Unions don't recruit members, COMPANIES do. If companies treated their people right, if they had good grievance procedures, treated people decently, no one would want to join a union!"


Conversation 6

There was a time when wages were the first order of business. "Wages are not even a consideration during organizing anymore. During bargaining, yes, but not organizing. Most people now want a union because they're frustrated, they have no say. If the company has to downsize, employees want a scheduled way that's fair. Companies need to wake up. Take away the right of an employee to be able to question, they become frustrated. The troops get frustrated, they organize."

Cooperation is the key. "I believe as companies get more global, they'll re-emphasis employee morale. Happiness is a good business decision. The only way to face global competition is for unions and companies to cooperate. Companies have to wake up and give the unions a piece of the pie. And the unions are going to have to say, 'hey, the days of striking and stopping a company from producing something are over. If they don't cooperate, they won't exist."

Involve unions in major issues. "Unions are really interested in companies succeeding. A union leader worth his salt is there to provide good pay, but also to provide jobs. Without jobs, he has no members."


Acknowledgements

Our thanks to The Commerce Club (of Atlanta) for their hospitality and cooperation.

Maggie Knapp at CWA District 3 headquarters went above and beyond the call of duty to help us get good information for this website. Thanks, Maggie!


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