‘Why We Wear Red on Thursdays’

Unlike other unions over the last 30 years, CWA has continued to strike—and continued to win.

Their enduring preparedness starts with something as simple as wearing red.


OCTOBER 25, 2019

JOSEPH KACZMAREK/AP PHOTO Members of the CWA demonstrate outside Verizon’s offices in Philadelphia, August 2012.

It was just two weeks into what would become a four-month-long strike. Edward “Gerry” Horgan, chief steward of Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 1103, stood the picket line with his fellow workers. A cable splicer with New York Telephone, Horgan was striking for better conditions and against NYNEX’s effort to get workers to pay part of the cost of their health insurance premiums. But on August 15, 1989, a scab—the daughter of a plant manager—drove across the picket line, killing Horgan. The details of exactly what happened are disputed. At the time, Horgan was just 34. He had a wife and two young daughters. Since then, CWA members wear red every Thursday to honor Horgan’s memory. Thirty years later, in another August, one of his daughters showed up on the picket line. She wasn’t a member, but she came to support the thousands of CWA members in nine Southeastern states who were striking against AT&T. Christine Horgan-Klien boosted morale, and she brought donuts two days in a row.“We were just kind of in awe because we didn’t know what to say,” says Steve Auerbach, president of CWA Local 3704 in South Carolina. Auerbach was among the picketing workers whom Horgan-Klein visited. “She was very supportive because she said we were all her family,” he adds. That night, Auerbach reached out to Horgan-Klein on Facebook, and she visited again the following day. This time, he said, they were ready. “I made sure to get more people out there and we made signs that said, ‘We wear red for Gerry’ or something like that.” When she arrived, Auerbach hugged her and thanked her for everything she and her family “had done for the movement.”

The strike in the Southeast lasted four and a half days, concluding when CWA reached a “handshake deal” with AT&T when the company finally sent representatives to the bargaining table with the authority to make a deal. The strike had stemmed from CWA’s frustration that the company had not been bargaining in good faith, sending negotiators to the table who had lacked such authority. Negotiations had slowed to a crawl, and to CWA members, AT&T’s conduct was far from bargaining in good faith. Once the company sent actual dealmakers, the two sides settled on a contract featuring wage increases of 13.25 percent over the next five years, improved pension and 401(k) benefits, as well as better job security and more customer service positions.

(Full disclosure: I’m a card-carrying member of Washington-Baltimore News Guild Local 32035, which is part of CWA.)

Wearing red is not just a way that CWA honors Horgan’s legacy. It’s a way CWA builds solidarity—and succeeds in their strikes. Unlike most other unions over the past 30 years, CWA has continued to strike regularly and—for the most part—it’s continued to win. From 1980 to 2017, the total number of strikes in the United States fell by a full 95 percent. In fact, despite a bump in the late 1960s and early 1970s, strikes have fallen since the 1940s. During the 2010s, the number of strikes each year actually declined to single digits. And yet CWA continued to launch major strikes, and to make gains. They’re not just small strikes, either. In 1983, 700,000 workers struck against the Bell System for 22 days. In 1986, CWA struck again for 26 days. 1989 brought with it the NYNEX strike, with a settlement for 175,000 workers. In 1992 and 1995, the union mobilized “coordinated inside tactics” by its members and strike-like tactics such as sick-outs and refusing overtime. Three years later, CWA struck for 41 days against the privatization of the Puerto Rico telephone company. In 2000, 87,000 workers struck against Verizon. In 2011, 45,000 CWA members struck against Verizon again, and yet again in 2016—when Senator Bernie Sanders joined them on the picket line.

“There was this handing down of the tradition of militancy,” says Bob Master, a veteran CWA leader in its Northeastern region (District 1). The strikes of 1971, 1989, and 2016, he says, are defining events for each successive generation of CWA members. Initially, CWA did have one particular advantage compared with other private-sector unions. When CWA was established, the telecommunications industry was largely a one-firm monopoly, which made it easier for members to bargain because their employer had no major competitors. This changed with a 1984 antitrust decision that broke up the Bell System into seven regional companies (“Baby Bells”) and later with the rise of non-union wireless companies. But even this didn’t stop CWA from striking, which points to something else as the root of CWA’s strike culture. Striking this often, in such large numbers, and managing to win gains in an era of worker defeats, has given CWA something of a “unicorn” status. To win that status, to continue to use the strike as a tool that works, the union has developed a permanent, comprehensive system of preparation and readiness.

CWA President Chris Shelton says that he hadn’t thought about CWA as “a unicorn, but that might be an apt description.”

I FIRST LEARNED ABOUT the CWA tradition of wearing red on Thursdays from Bob Master. As we sat in a coffee shop just outside Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, Master said he got chills retelling the story of Gerry Horgan and his daughter. Master is working on his master’s degree in labor studies, and he’s writing about why CWA kept striking when everyone else stopped. He told me that a lot of its success is rooted in what he calls “The Spirit of ’71,” referring to a strike that year of 40,000 CWA members against New York Telephone that lasted for 218 days. At its conclusion, members won a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for the first time and a big-city allowance. Then–CWA President Joe Beirne set up what was known as the Task Force ’71 Mobilization program, which was instrumental in this victory. As developed years later by New Jersey CWA leader Larry Cohen, the union designates one mobilizer for every 10 to 15 members, a program that Cohen took nationwide when he later became CWA president.

“I was a participant in the 1971 strike in New York and, you know, people outside didn’t view that as a great success—but we did,” says current CWA president Shelton. “It kind of formed a lot of the leadership’s thinking for a long time afterwards and I guess to this day.” Within the union, Shelton continues, having been involved in the ’71 strike is viewed as a “badge of honor.” What CWA was striking for, Shelton says, “was to try to get uniformity in the telephone industry in contract negotiation, and we actually accomplished that.” In the ’71 strike, Bell agreed that it would go to national bargaining from a regional system. “We only got a dollar raise, but to the people on strike, more important was [achieving] national bargaining,” Shelton says—a model that kept the company from arbitraging wages regionally, and that extended to subsequent contracts as well.

CWA’s victory in ’71 was emblematic of how the union bargains for strategic advantage, something that will give it an edge in future negotiations. Indeed, the late 1960s and the early 1970s were a moment of innovation for American unions, says labor historian Lane Windham, of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. Beginning with General Electric workers in 1966, unions were considering expanding their bargaining with management to encompass all workers in their industry or sector. “There was this huge vision in the movement for ‘Can we actually bargain sectorally,’” Windham says, “‘even begin to bargain for things beyond what we traditionally bargained for?’” Labor historian Erik Loomis, who’s authored a book on strikes, also points to labor’s expansive agenda during this time. Unions, he notes, aggressively pushed for environmental reforms in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

CWA’s strike in 1971 was “part of this aspirational moment,” Windham says. But the economic downturn and dramatic reorganization of the American economy that began in 1973 brought this moment to an end. Facing competition from the newly resurgent economies of Germany and Japan, companies began taking a much harder line toward unions, leading to what Windham calls a “massive union-busting offensive.” The burgeoning anti-union sentiment in the 1970s culminated in the 1981 PATCO strike, when President Ronald Reagan fired the more than 11,000 air-traffic controllers who’d struck for better working conditions. Reagan’s action gave tacit approval to private companies to engage in the same union-busting tactics. Before the PATCO strike, employers discouraged unions from striking. After PATCO, many corporations baited unions into striking and subsequently busted them. As the number of major strike actions yearly fell from 300 or more to single digits, unions looked to other tactics to win contractual gains. CWA did this, too. But CWA also kept striking.

“CWA has played a unique role in keeping strike culture alive in the American labor movement,” says labor historian Joseph McCartin, author of a volume on the PATCO strike and its aftermath, and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. “And that dates back almost to the immediate aftermath of PATCO,” he continues, referencing CWA’s 1983 strike against the Bell System. “That sent a message that this union wasn’t afraid to fight at a time when other unions were taking a whipping in strikes.” To keep striking, the union needed to build a massive mobilization apparatus and a rock-solid culture of solidarity. Steve Early, a former CWA organizer, says that means involving members in “escalating activity.” You start small, says Matt Wood, president of CWA Local 3411 in Louisiana, with, for example, everyone standing up together in a call center at 3 p.m. and counting who’s standing, or by wearing red on Thursdays. It builds trust, and helps members be ready to strike. It helps members know “who’s really ready to be down,” Wood says.

Former CWA President Larry Cohen says that the mobilization program has been a major part of the union’s strike strategy since 1987. Ideally, there’s one mobilizer for every ten members. “The mobilizers are absolutely the center of the whole thing,” says Cohen. According to Steve Auerbach, who was South Carolina’s mobilization chair nearly a decade ago, mobilizer work often began with mobilizers meeting together on how to educate, involve, and motivate members. The mobilizers would hold a competition for which member could create the best slogan for their annual shirts, giving the winner a gift card. They made flyers—“Are you prepared if we go on strike? Right now is the time to start preparing”—to create a culture of readiness among the members. Ideally, CWA is always ready to strike. The guidelines about the union’s strike fund state, “It’s always a good idea to proceed as if every Contract negotiation will end up in a strike.” For the last 30 to 35 years, Early says, there’s also been a “culture of contract campaigning.” Well before a contract is set to expire, members prepare for the possibility of a strike should the negotiations go south. This could begin as early as six to eight months in advance.

CWA prepares for strikes that endure, and for the prospect that companies will ramp up pressure by, for instance, cutting health care for striking workers. CWA has a $400 million strike fund, and this year, CWA members voted to raise worker benefits during a strike.“The members of the union have voted to put their money where their tactics are,” Cohen says. In any prolonged strike, members would receive $300 a week in CWA strike benefits on the 15th day of a strike, increasing to $400 a week on the 29th day of a strike. The strike fund also covers strikers’ “necessary medical/hospital expenses” and in some “extreme cases,” says Early, even health care premiums. “It’s not your total income,” Early continues, but it’s a “security blanket.” The lessons of the 1989 NYNEX strike, when the company cut health care for all striking workers, still loom large in the union’s calculations.

ED BAILEY/AP PHOTO-CWA members protest outside the Plaza Hotel in New York while AT&T Chairman Robert Allen was honored at a dinner inside the hotel, June 1992.

During the recent strike in the Southeast, these fears were apparent among members, says Louisiana local president Wood. Having financial support from CWA “does give [members] that confidence.” In order to minimize pressure on members during strikes, Early says, CWA often plans to begin the strike over a weekend, only then extending into the workweek. This is especially true in the case of “protest strikes,” designed to draw attention to the members’ concerns rather than to walk off the job for a prolonged period to pressure the company. To maximize member participation and support, CWA takes pains to be as open as possible with its members about the underlying issues, the union’s and the company’s positions, the progress of negotiations, and everything that might arise during the strike. “The way we go on strike may be a little different from the way other unions do it,” Shelton says. “We do extensive and kind of minute member mobilization” that is based on education. “Member education for us is the horn on the unicorn,” Shelton adds.

While some unions report regularly to members on the ebb and flow of bargaining (the Chicago Teachers Union, currently on strike, issues several reports each day), others withhold information until a settlement is reached. CWA has long reported steadily to its members. “If you go to one of our picket lines anywhere,” says Shelton, “they know exactly why they’re on that picket line and what they can get and when they go back to work.” Like some more militant unions, and unlike others, CWA brings its members directly to the bargaining table, and doesn’t bring in outside negotiators. “For more than 30 years, the strategy has been that the members are involved in the contract,” says former president Cohen. “It’s not about sending brilliant negotiators.” Education matters not just for members, but for the public, too. “You can’t go on strike and expect the public to be on your side if you’re getting something the public is not,” Shelton says. “You have to couch it in terms that affect the public.” Protest strikes can be especially effective in educating the public about workers’ concerns. SEIU’s “Fight for 15” strikes not just educated but eventually mobilized the public, to the point that elected officials raised minimum wages to $15 in a host of cities and states.

During the decades when strikes were a rarity (that is, up until last year), neither employers nor the public had much sense of how to respond—another eventuality that CWA was prepared for. “NYNEX didn’t know what the hell we were doing [in 1989],” Shelton says. “People hadn’t seen a strike in so long they didn’t know what we were doing. We put [a member] in front of every Verizon store to explain.” Sometimes, the store “emptied out because the public understood.” If the public is not happy with the company, Shelton says, the company “feels that very quickly.” Historians I spoke to largely attribute CWA’s success to several of its attributes, rather than any one thing. Not only does CWA have good mobilization at the ground level, they say, but it also has a more democratic internal life than some of its peers. CWA also boasts a militant ideology that was particularly strong in the Northeast during the 1990s and early aughts, and is pervasive throughout much of the union today. Also critical to keeping the strike culture alive, says McCartin, has been CWA’s top brass. The three most recent former CWA presidents and the current president, Shelton, have all led major strikes. “I don’t know that you can identity four successive presidents in a union who were each involved in leading strikes with more than 40,000 workers,” McCartin notes. Before becoming president, these CWA presidents had also led strikes in their regions; they’d come to the top job accustomed to making strike culture a centerpiece of union strategy.

Like other unions, CWA has absorbed smaller unions in recent decades. But as has seldom been the case with other unions, these smaller unions, upon merging with CWA, have themselves become more militant, with the Flight Attendants being one of the more recent examples. Although CWA doesn’t get the same media attention as UAW or SEIU, Loomis said he thinks the union deserves a lot of credit “for keeping the strike alive as a pretty frequent tactic and especially in going after AT&T and Verizon.” He added, “[That] has been really important in relaying to the rest of the labor movement that strikes work.”

CWA’S AUGUST STRIKE against AT&T was the largest strike in the South in many years. Following a strike authorization vote in which 95 percent of the voting members approved a strike, roughly 20,000 members walked off the job on August 23.“The participation was absolutely phenomenal,” says Richard Honeycutt, CWA vice president for its Southeastern region and leader of the bargaining team. “I don’t feel like we could have asked for much better.” Only 1 percent of the 20,000 workers involved crossed the picket line. The top issues were job security and limiting the amount of overtime the company could force on workers, Honeycutt said. “We had lots of people out on strike who aren’t even members because they believed in what we were trying to do,” says Shelton. What motivated members? “AT&T is our biggest mobilizer,” Honeycutt says. “They get our people more fired up than we could ever because of the pressures that come from working for AT&T and the performance targets … that are constantly changing.”

“Managers shooting off their mouth [at us] actually helps us,” Auerbach says. But more than that, he continues, AT&T worked members extremely hard this past summer—and in extreme heat. Buried service wire crews were on the job six days a week, nine or ten hours a day. The company could force employees to work as many as 54 hours a week. “In this heat, with that many hours, all people wanna do is rest,” says Auerbach. “AT&T was trying to do more with less people. We’re seeing it and we’re feeling it.” Preparation for the strike began in November 2018, when mobilizers and training coordinators talked to locals and their members about their issues and the upcoming bargaining. In the South, Honeycutt says, where unions are not usually perceived positively, CWA’s members are not always clear on what a union is and what it can do. The strike changed that. “What made the strike successful,” says Honeycutt, “was the mobilization project and the pre-training.” Members of the public showed support for strikers, too, bringing food and water to the picketers. “In the Southeast, it’s definitely not union-friendly and so to see people in the community come out was really inspiring,” Honeycutt says. And even in the non-union South, success breeds respect. Seeing the strike, many members of the public, says Wood, thought, “‘I’m gonna sit over here and see what happens and we’ll see what they do.’

“But now that we won, people are saying, ‘Y’all are awesome.’” The public’s reception to the CWA strike—like its support for striking teachers in red states—may be the most striking (no pun intended) manifestation of a larger trend. A recent Gallup poll shows that support for unions among Americans is at a 50-year high, despite a continuous decline in membership.

Shelton said he thinks successful strikes are one reason why Americans now seem more favorable toward unions. “It’s a great time for unions because people are starting to understand that when they band together and fight, they can win,” he says. The increasingly pervasive perception that the economy is rigged against workers has built public support as well. “What people believed 40 years ago,” says Wood, “it’s not a reality anymore. [Corporations] have been playing us the whole time, laughing, but people are starting to learn.” They’re also starting to strike. No longer is CWA the unicorn it once was. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that in 2018 there were 20 major strikes, involving nearly half a million workers. This is the highest number of stoppages since 2007, and the most workers since 1986.

“It’s really a moment of change,” Wood said. “It really is.”