CWA's Joel Valera fired by AT&T for speaking up

By DON McINTOSH, Staff Reporter

Joel Valera spoke up in favor of a union at AT&T Broadband in Beaverton, and for that he was fired. That was the conclusion of a neutral third-party arbitrator, and of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which found that the $65-billion-a-year company broke U.S. labor law when it fired Valera, a cable installer who made $12.97 an hour.

Valera was a squeaky wheel, unafraid to speak up at work against management abuses.

"I've always felt if you don't stand up for your rights, you're gonna get walked on," he said.

On June 20, in the midst of a union organizing drive by the Communication Workers of America Local 7901, Beaverton installation and repair manager Mike Workman held a meeting at which he asked workers what their issues were. Other workers may have been afraid to speak up, but not Valera. He delivered a list of grievances, and accused Workman of cheating workers.

In July 1999 AT&T had come into possession of the Beaverton cable operation with the purchase of TCI Cable. "We thought things would get better," Valera said. "They were telling us that we were on the leading edge of technology, and cable was going to be the wave of the future, that stocks were going up. Meanwhile we were having things taken away."

First went vision benefits, then the bonus for retrieving cable boxes when service was cut off, then pay for being on-call, and commissions for getting customers to pay before service was cut off. Valera said every two months the company would pull some benefit out.

Now, he told Workman, cable installers were being cheated out of extra wages by being made to do service and repair work, a better-paid class of work, for their regular pay. On top of that, workers were not getting lunch breaks as a result of a speed-up. Previously, they had been expected to do two jobs in a three-hour time frame; now they were expected to do two jobs in two hours.

Several hours after the meeting, Valera was sent home from work. Two days later he was fired, a week before the union election.

The firing, of the union's most outspoken supporter, had a clear and chilling effect. Though it filed for election with 65 percent support, the union lost the vote 43 to 46. Valera said even people who were his friends at work confided in him that they voted against the union because they were afraid their votes would not be kept secret and that they too would lose their jobs for supporting the union.

As part of its 1998 contract with CWA, AT&T agreed to strict neutrality during unionizing campaigns. If the company is accused of violating this neutrality agreement, the contract provides for a neutral arbitrator to investigate, with the power to overturn election results if those violations led to a union loss. That's what happened in this case.

After a week of hearings, arbitrator Joseph Bock found that Valera's firing and other management acts had violated neutrality. He overturned the Beaverton election results and ordered the company to recognize the union. But he didn't have the power to order AT&T to rehire Valera.

For that, the union went to the NLRB, which has a hearing set for March 15. If the agency upholds its Oct. 31 finding that AT&T illegally fired Valera, the company could still pursue a course of legal appeals that could drag out a resolution for years.

Valera may not want to wait that long. He has a family to support: two sons, aged four months and four years, and a live-in girlfriend with her own five-year-old. A week after his firing, Valera found work with a sympathetic AT&T contractor, but was laid off when the job was completed. In November, he had to borrow money to make the rent. In early December, the health insurance covering his sons expired.

Valera's case is important for CWA, which has placed a high priority on organizing new industries like cable. TCI's vehement resistance of unionizing efforts had kept the union largely out of cable. With its purchase of TCI and Media One, AT&T is now the dominant cable operator, with over 11 million customers.

Given the company's supposed commitment to neutrality, the union is hoping to quickly organize the industry before the AT&T contract expires in 2002. It has a long way to go: just 600 of the 43,000 workers in AT&T's cable division are organized so far.

On Dec. 9, the union flew Valera to Palm Springs, Calif., to tell his story to a conference of the union's AT&T units. To help Valera, members passed the hat and raised $2,600. In Portland, a CWA steward is trying to get Valera a union job. The union is planning a campaign to win community support and attention to Valera's case. The Workers Rights Board project of Portland Jobs With Justice is planning to write a letter to AT&T on Valera's behalf. Last month, Valera told his story on a local radio show.

Valera's not sure if he wants to go back to work for AT&T. But he wants the offer, and back pay, and an apology. "I want everybody to know that they offered me my job back. It would convince people that the union did win, that the company can't fire you for sticking up for yourself."

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