Telephone Workers, Overwork, & Free Time

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Telephone Workers, Overwork, & Free Time

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

In the August 31 NYTimes, there is a major article on a possible impending telephone workers strike — the CWA (Communication Workers of America) vs. "Verizon" — what was Bell Atlantic, plus other global-corporate parts.

Last weekend, I got a first-hand taste of what is at stake in this possible strike, and since it connects with some Shalom Ctr work, I want to report on this and ask your thoughts.

The report may seem longish, but I hope you'll find what happened interesting and enlivening.

Last weekend, Doug Heifetz and I went to a university campus near Providence RI for the annual meetings — including a sub-conference on Religion & Labor — of "Jobs with Justice," a natl organization that connects some of the most creative energies in the labor movement with supportive community groups — religious folk, students, etc.

Doug's a rabbinical student at RRC and the Shalom Ctr's project coordinator this year for our Free Time/Free People project on Overwork in America & how to heal this society of its addiction to Doing/Making with no time for Being — for restful reflection, family, & community.

Two years ago, the Shalom Ctr began bringing together people from a broad spectrum of religious communities & traditions to address this issue.

There is now a working committee, & a statement signed by a very stellar list of well-known spiritual & religious & secular leaders and serious organizers.

We have now had articles published in Sojourners, a well-known progressive Christian magazine; in Tikkun, a ditto-Jewish magazine; Witness, an episcopal journal; and one has been accepted for The Nation, a progressive-secular magazine.

We went to the JwJ conference to explore this initiative with others who were there and to grok what concerns were gripping the labor movement, which is now coming out of long doldrums to reassert energy and organizing.

The conference had about 700 participants — about 150 from religious groups/congregations, about 200 students, maybe 100 from various community organizations, the rest from labor.

There was a VERY strong sense of excitement and forward energy, and a consensus that specific critiques and issues fit within a critique of the increasing anti-democratic power of global corporations, which have been growing in their power to brush aside natl govts, labor unions, environmental groups, and consumers.

How did this perception of growing corporate power & this feeling of more resistance-power co-exist? Thru a sense that public attention and organizing energy are now focused on the right place, and that workers, students, religious folk, & environmentalists are beginning to see a common oppressiveness in global-corporate institutions that endanger the values of each of those gatherings of people.

There was a plenary session with five or six major figures from labor movements in South Africa, Europe, Latin America, & Asia — as a working effort to bring together a transnational labor movement to resist the new global corporatism.

Most of the workshops were focused on nuts-and-bolts stories of effective organizing, rather than on theoretical or ideological debate. In the religion-labor discussions, however, there was some discussion of the difference between "calling a collar" — that is, getting a priest/minister/rabbi to come speak on behalf of a labor struggle so as to give lit legitimacy in public eyes — vs. the notion that labor unionists might listen to religious concerns closely, and deepen their own approach to organizing by taking religion seriously.

Indeed, here is where the Shalom Ctr's Free Time/Free People project comes in.

Once uipon a time, the labor movement fought for the 8-hour day & the 40-hour week. More recently, large parts of it have succumbed to sheer money-ism and have not complained even at huge amounts of compulsory overtime, because it pays more.

But this is now changing. The CWA telephone struggle is an example.

The entire JwJ conference, instead of only sitting in classrooms to learn together, went on Friday afternoon to join a mass picket line at a nearby Bell Atlantic plant. Most of the workers there answer phone calls from customers who need various kinds of information. The work force has been HALVED over the last two years. But the work has not. So workers are now on intense speed-up.

When a certain number of calls pile up unanswered, the bosses announce "red alert." That means no one can leave the desk, stretch, shmooze, pee — no free time.

This is one of the major oppressions against which CWA is organizing.

The Times today writes —

For some Verizon workers, a strike cannot come soon enough if it brings about measures to reduce stress on the job. At many call centers, customer service representatives who take orders for new service or answer questions about bills say they are inundated with calls, and that management often requires them to tack four extra hours onto their shifts.

Patricia Egan, who works in a Verizon facility in Queens answering questions from residential customers, said, "We generally work from 8 in the morning until 4, but often we're forced to work until 8 at night. It wreaks havoc. People go to school and they're forced to miss classes. Many workers are single parents, and this forced overtime is a nightmare. It creates serious problems for their child care arrangements."

She would like the union and company to agree on measures to reduce stress and forced overtime. One of CWA's major concerns is that after two generations of being a unionized company, Bell Atlantic/Verizon is now making sure that the new-tech areas in the bigger "Verizon" holding company are not unionized — so that the phone workers are being boxed in and will not be able to resist such speed-up pressures.

As we pointed out in our own workshop at JwJ, the Free Time vs. Overwork issue could call forth a cross-class alliance. Fancy lawyers at fancy firms, blue-collar workers with no time to breathe, and very poor workers holding 2 or even 3 jobs to barely get by are all being overworked. Addressing this issue could bring them together.

JwJ invited the Shalom Ctr to create a "Welcome to the Sabbath" of some sort for the WHOLE conference, not just the Jews.

What I chose to do Friday evening was to begin with invoking one of the great labor organizers of all time — i.e., Moses — who in a society where construction was very big business organized Bricklayers Local # 1 (an image from A. J. Muste). I talked about how hard the organizing was — even workers who joined the union quit when the boss, CEO of Egypt Inc, got tougher. But finally they called a strike and won.

Two strands of practice grew from this victory: rulers against exploiting workers or foreigners, and — Shabbat. I connected that with the CWA/AT&T struggle — red alerts, etc. — we had learned about on Friday afternoon.

I suggested that the "Sabbath" the Bricklaywers Union adopted was not just a single sacred day off, but the free time to rest, reflect, and celebrate — to catch their breaths — during work, on every workday.

And that even organizers need to rest, to reflect, to sing, to celebrate with joy.

Then I said — how do we start Shabbat? By lighting candles; by singing a song; by chanting "Shabbat Shalom" — "Sabbath Peace".

So — we can't do 700 candles, and one person lighting on behalf of all felt counter to our self-empowering values. So I suggested everyone's turning to an neighbor to light up the light in each other's faces.

At first — titters of embarrassment. But I asked people to think — what does it mean that we who are committed to creating a just and caring community can't bear to look at each other? And — what has this society done to us that looking at each other feels embarrassing?

Then I asked again. This time most people did it.

Then I explained the c horus of the song with which the Friday evening liturgy traditionally welcomes Shabbat — — literally, "the Face of Shabbat we receive." I asked them to think about their workday faces:

The forced smile. The angry glare. The exhausted slump.

And then I asked them to receive a shabbat face. I said for me, that meant taking off my glasses and giving my face a "back rub." Letting my face loosen, relax.

I did it. So did many others.

Finally, I taught them the simplest chant of "Shabbat Shalom," and we did it several times.

That was it.

The next morning, at least 50 people — Jews and Christians — thanked me, said it had been a wonderful learning & opening for them.

So — I hope you-all will reflect on and write me/us about your own experiences with forced overwork, and the ways you could make "space" in your life-time.

Not just Shabbat of the 25 hours, but time to breathe in the midst of work, etc.

Can you do this on your own?

Do you need communal help and support?

Would it matter if your own congregation spent a couple of Sabbaths a year focusing on Shabbat itself — its meaning, its origins, not just in Bible but in actual do-ability in our own society?

What pressures to overwork do congregation members feel under now?

How can we take "Shabbat moments" beyond Friday-Saturday into the week? Do we need "political" communities and actions to do this, like a union, a law?

Should we be making deeper connections with Jobs with Justice?

Shalom, Arthur
Shalom Center Website