Laura Unger

“I’m So Glad I Took the Route that I Did.”

Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, January 2019

 [Edited Transcript]

MJC:  Let’s just start right in. Tell us about your beginning. When you were born and what year and whatever you want to say about that.

LU:  I was born April Fool’s Day 1949, the youngest of three girls. I think my mother was expecting a boy, that was the “April Fools”. I grew up in a small town in Queens, which is part of New York City. I became political at a very young age. I think my first action was when I was 10 years old and I collected petitions against capital punishment.  There was going to be an execution of a man, Caryl Chessman. I just seemed to get more political after that.

MJC:  Did that come from your family or school or just the times that you were living in? That would have been 1959.

LU:  My family was liberal, Democratic, but not particularly political.  My father died when I was 13 of multiple sclerosis. Several other people started having influence on me from outside the family. I had a political next-door neighbor, and a counselor I had in camp and the times were political. This was the early ’60s. I was 13 in 1963. It was a wonderful time to grow up. There was so much going on in the world and I think I was just open to it.

MJC:  In high school were you active?

LU:   My high school had just started to get integrated. It was Bayside High School and they started busing Black students in from Jamaica and Flushing, which are other parts of Queens. A chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality was formed. I became a member of the CORE chapter. So that was my involvement in high school. 

Also, I had an incident with my mother. She was very nervous about me because my father had recently died, and a friend of the family invited me to go to Washington with his family for the March on Washington. And she did not want me to go because she was afraid for me. And from then on, I started sneaking into the city to go to demonstrations. I would go into the city and tell her I was going to the library.

There were a lot of demonstrations at that point in New York around civil rights, particularly in  the schools. I would go into the city, hang out with my friends, and we would go to marches across the Brooklyn Bridge to the Board of Education headquarters. And I was always afraid that somebody would catch me in a newspaper photo. I kept myself well hidden. My mother never knew that I did that until much later.

MJC:  And then what happened next?

LU:  I went to college at NYU (New York University) after applying to Cornell in Labor Relations and getting rejected. I found out many years later they only took six women that year, because they really wanted women to go into the School of Home Economics, which both my sisters went to. They went to Cornell. When I didn’t get into Cornell, I told my mother I wanted to stay in the city. By that time, she remarried somebody who could afford it and I applied very late to NYU and got in.

MJC:  That’s a good choice, right?

LU:  It was a good choice and there was a very active movement at the time. I got very active as soon as I got to NYU.

MJC:  So, what issues did you pursue in college?

LU:  It started out with the Students Against the War, because Vietnam was the key issue. And then that morphed into a Students for a Democratic Society chapter, which I became part of. The advantage to me of SDS as opposed to just the anti-war movement, is there were more issues than just anti-war. There was civil rights. There was national liberation. There were workers issues. There were workers at NYU that I knew who were on strike, who we supported. And there were women’s issues.

There was some struggle and discussion about whether we should be in a separate women’s organization or stay part of SDS. There was a women’s caucus in SDS. I really believed that – I still believe that all these issues are related to each other. The war was related to the civil rights movement. The civil rights movements connected to the women’s movement and they were all connected to the labor movement. You can’t separate them out. And that’s why I found SDS particularly more important than any single issue organization.

MJC:  SDS – was that your first involvement in women’s rights issues, or did that come up in high school for you in any way?

LU:  Not SDS – I was conscious of the issue, especially obviously after I got rejected from Cornell. And it always really bothered me that my sisters were relegated to this College of Home Economics (which was later changed to “the College of Human Ecology.”) I was certainly conscious of the issue, but I wasn’t a member of an organization until college.

MJC:  Any issues that you worked on in college that led you to other decisions?

LU:  There was an organizing drive going on and there was a strike of maintenance workers and we got involved in the strike. I remember sitting on the curb and a woman from the neighborhood coming up and saying, “You shouldn’t sit on the curb. It’s going to give you hemorrhoids.” That was my first workers picket line. But we were out there every day. There were also some students rights issues. They tried to raise the tuition, believe it or not, to $2400 and we held a sit-in for several days. 

MJC:  What did you study in college?

LU:  I was an English major (my mother was an English teacher) and political science. But to tell you the truth, it was fascinating, so many of the teachers were also very political. This was ’66 to ’70, which was the height of the student movement. Kent State was in 1970. I don’t think I went to a class in 1970. And since most of my teachers were also involved, and I sort of picked them based on their being political, they were very forgiving if we were involved in the activities that were going on. They really didn’t demand a lot of academics.

MJC:  That’s interesting, too. So, there was solidarity on the campus too. So, then you graduated. What were your next moves in terms of picking work for yourself?

LU:  Mainly, I just worked a lot of different jobs. I didn’t want to become a teacher. I spent a lot of time just finding movements, political things. And at that point, making a living was pretty much just to make a living. I worked for the New York Public Library as a clerk. I worked in a bunch of print shops. I used to do layout for print shops, which was a skill I learned in the movement – how to make posters, do layout and how to cut and paste. I had worked on a lot of student newspapers, things like that.

I worked for UPS. I applied to UPS to be a driver, which paid well and was a Union job. And they of course turned me into a (non-Union) customer service representative. I just worked a lot of different jobs and then I worked in a factory. I believed, as part of my political understanding, that it was important for progressives to help build the labor movement. I went to work in a factory called Leviton and packed switches.

My daughter was born when I was working in the factory. My husband and I met at college in SDS. We got married in ’73, I had my first child in ’77. It was an IBEW shop and the benefits for women were so terrible in that shop that Medicaid paid for my daughter’s birth. I had to fight to get my job back, because they had just passed the law in New York saying that they had to treat pregnancy like any other disability. And IBEW did not particularly fight for me to get my job back. I had to go to the NYS Human Rights Commission, and I got my job back and eventually got laid off.

MJC:  Was that job, packing the switches, was that considered a man’s job?

LU:  No, it was the “women’s job.” There was an entire floor of women and the men were paid slightly better, but not much better. This is a minimum wage factory, basically. It was definitely a “women’s job.” 

MJC:  You got laid off from that job, and now what do you do next?

LU:  I eventually started working for UPS and that’s when my friend told me about the jobs at AT&T. But I was almost 30 by that point. So, I had had a lot of different experiences before that and I always was a member of some kind of political organization. 

MJC:  So, you were doing politics, earning a living and having a life. What year did you go to work for AT&T?

LU:  Early ‘79.

MJC:  Were you aware of the government’s action with AT&T, the consent decree when you looked for that job?

LU:  Yes, because I had friends who worked for both AT&T and NYNEX (NY Telephone). They were also political women that I had known. And when jobs opened up they called me and let me know that, because of the consent decree, I could get a job as a technician. I had no desire to become an operator. I apologize to all my friends who are operators, but that just wasn’t for me.

MJC:  So, you deliberately chose to go to a non-traditional situation. So you were a pioneer as a result of the AT&T consent decree. You were one of the first hires. Was a technician a male category?

LU:  There weren’t a lot, but there were a few women in the office before me. I wasn’t the first. There were probably three or four women. And at that point, I think they had really started ramping up the hiring. For example, at the moment that I got hired, all the people [who] got hired for the tech plant job were either women or Vietnam vets.

The Vietnam vets were the only men who were getting hired, because I think this was a few years after the consent decree. I think they were really behind on their hiring of women. They must have decided they had to ramp it up. There were about 15 of us that got hired at the same time. We were in a class together. And it was women and two men, two vets.

MJC:  So, what was the ratio in your job category at your place?

LU:  In that building that I worked in, they were probably 300 technicians. I would say they were probably 15 or 20 women.

MJC:  OK, so women were still on the side of minority. What was that like to work in a job that had been reserved for men in the past?

LU:  Well, first of all, even though we were technicians, they really did discriminate on what kind of jobs they gave us as technicians. There were a lot of technicians’ jobs that were more clerical in nature, [but] they were still considered technicians jobs. They were mainly going over trouble tickets. I desperately wanted to be on the test board. Depending on how quickly we made it through the first training, if you finished it quickly, they put you on the test board. I was able to get onto the test board.

I found that I was pregnant about a month and a half after I got the job. I hid the fact that I was pregnant until I was seven months pregnant. I just wore bigger and bigger shirts, because I was afraid that they would take me off the test board. So, I wanted to go through all my training classes before I told them. And at that point they had invested so much training in me that I knew they wouldn’t take me off the test board. So that was issue number one.

Some of the men were fine. There were a lot of older guys who worked there. In fact, in the old days the guys had to wear shirts and ties. They still wore shirts and ties, even though that policy had stopped five or six years before. A lot of those men sort of refused to have anything to do with us. One of them actually said to me, when I asked them a question, that he would never answer the question. But, after I did something particularly complicated on my own, he came up to me and said, “Now I know you can learn.”

I suppose it was condescending, but I was so happy that he said that. After that, not only was he helpful, but he became one of my biggest supporters when I became active in the Local.

MJC: What would you say, as someone who lived through that situation, what was the impact on the men and women of AT&T? The EEOC decision and the decree?

LU:  It completely changed the nature of the workplace, I think, because of the kind of women who put in for jobs like that. We were all very active and we were all very outspoken. And they were not shrinking violets, these women. They really became sort of a major force in the workforce, not just as technicians, but in the Union.

I should back up a step. When I got there, there was a little organization called the Bell Busters, which was a group of militant workers who wanted to improve the Local. It had a good number of women. Women who started before me were part of that. In fact, the woman who told me about the job was part of that. And we put out a little newspaper and we basically criticized the mostly male leadership of the Local.

I would say I walked into a situation where I think the progressive women really did have an impact. In fact, when I got back from my maternity leave, a woman had become the Shop Steward, which is a big deal. I became her assistant, the second shop steward.

MJC: Just to be clear, the Steward position was elected? So, the men by this time had said, we’re willing not only to accept, but we’re willing to give the women leadership positions?

LU: In my office they were. The nature of the women who applied for those jobs, they were outspoken.

MJC: Would you say they knew they were pioneers? That they were doing something special?

LU:  I think they did. The next challenge for me was the divestiture happened. And if it had gone exactly by seniority, we would have lost all the women in the office. If they had moved us out by the least senior and said, you all have to go to New York Telephone, then we would have been back to square one. Fortunately, enough people wanted to transfer to New York Tel because a lot of people thought that was a more stable environment. There was a very big local that had the NYNEX people. And a lot of people wanted to be part of that local.

I specifically did not go because of that; because I felt that in my Local based on my experience already, that there was a future for me in union leadership. I had worked on the Bell Buster. Early on I had started working for the local newspaper, The Local Spirit, and I had sort of gotten a name for myself from articles I had written. If I had gone to the other local, I would have been lucky to become a shop steward.

If I stayed in this local, it was smaller, we knew each other, I knew I would have a chance to actually become union leadership. And that’s why I stayed, even though my job was much less secure. It was the right decision. I stayed and I became editor of the local newspaper. I won all kinds of newspaper awards.

MJC:  Your English degree paid off in the end.

LU: Mainly my politics. I wrote very rabble-rousing articles. Then I ran for Secretary Treasurer, which is the typical women’s position in any Local, but not in male run locals. And then two years later, I ran against an incumbent president and three other men. And won on a first ballot.

MJC: So that’s quite an achievement. Do you want to talk about that and why that happened?

LU: It was sort of a perfect storm, to tell you the truth. My Local was made up of people from New York and New Jersey. We had lost all of our operators very early on. That was one of my first actions actually, in the Local, was to organize a demonstration around the closing of our last operators. We had lost most of our operators, but we had a lot of clerical workers. And then there was the plant and the plant guys were the most vocal and voted the most.

I lived in New Jersey, and the Jersey people liked me. They saw me as an ally. I was a woman, so the clerical workers liked me. I had had experience in clerical jobs and customer service. I was in plant and I was sort of known as being tough. I had gotten into a couple of fairly serious altercations on the picket lines. So, people knew me from that.

MJC: You would stand up for them.

LU: And I had a pretty good history in my building as being steward and a chief steward and winning a bunch of grievances. It was really a perfect combination. And the fact is, the men in  the leadership of the Local were pretty terrible. The guys would go to the bar. They would all go to the office in the morning, and to the bar in the afternoon. They were not responsive. All the things that people say about bad union leadership is what they represented. And, you know, I think the members really saw me as an alternative to that.

MJC: So that was quite an achievement.

LU: It was quite an achievement. I took it so seriously that I didn’t just want to be a little bit better. I wanted to really try to have a different kind of Local.

MJC: So, for people who don’t know unions, explain how your work status changes when you became the president of the union.

LU: Well, actually, it didn’t change as much as it would have if I hadn’t done what I did. My Local had about 2500 people at that point, which is just on the borderline of being able to afford to have full time officers. I decided that – I thought it was important for the officers not to be off the job all the time; that it was important for them to show up at work, even if just a few times a month to make sure that they knew what was happening on the job and that people had access to us.

So that was one of the first things that I changed, actually. People always complained about unions not communicating with people. I had a daily tape that people could call into where I would talk for about a minute or two if anything was going on and what the situation was in the union. What the big battles were.

And in fact, it became so well known, that we had to change our system, because people all over the country started calling it to get information, because there was not a lot of good information. I really tried to change it. Also, I had a very diverse board. I had a male secretary treasurer. My vice president was a black male who had been an operator for a long time and transferred to plant.

It wasn’t by design that I said I have to have specific kinds of people. It was truly picking the best people at the time. And people asked how did you do that? I just picked the best people at the time and asked them to run with me. And we really had a wonderful board. You have to understand your own strengths and weaknesses. And I was not good at certain things and I was good at other things.

I was good at big strategy. I was good at writing. I was good at communicating. I was good at coming up with ideas for how we could fight the company. I was good at a lot of things. I wasn’t good at the nitty gritty. I was a decent grievance handler, obviously, but it really wasn’t what I was in love with.

But I had people on the board who were doing different things and we really had a good division of labor so that we could each do what we were best at. And, you know, we were successful. I was elected. We’d never had a Local president elected twice in a row before. I was elected four times. Never had opposition. I loved it. It’s a strange thing, because it was a very male dominated Local.

People said, how can you work with these guys? Of course, they have all the weaknesses of everybody else in America. They were chauvinists. Some of them were racist. They were anti-Semitic. They are all kinds of things. But I really got to love them all. You know, you learn how to pick your fights and bring people along. You know, my secretary treasurer voted for Reagan when we first met. By the time we’d finished, he was a very liberal Democrat.

People change and you have to give them room to change. If you just stomp on them as soon as you meet them, because they’re not as perfect as you would like them to be, I never would have been elected president of my Local. I never would have done any of the things I accomplished.

MJC: How did things change for women within the company?

LU: While this was going on in my Local, there’s also the National Union. I began to play a bigger and bigger role in the National Union at conventions. I ran against a man on bargaining who never should have had that position. He ran for a marketing seat. He never should have had that spot.

I ran against him. I was elected to the AT&T national bargaining table. I ran for that in 1992. We had a group of Local presidents called the Ad-Hoc, which was Local presidents from all around the country, whose job was to communicate better and to try to fight for better things within our part of AT&T (Long Lines) and the part of the Union that I was part of nationally.

And then there were a group of women (Annie Crump, one of the women that you interviewed) sort of took me under their wing because they were on bargaining with me the first time I was on bargaining. They really taught me the ropes about how to do things at the National Convention. How to work the floor, how we can get allies, and they took me to school. They are tough, tough teachers. We were able to accomplish a lot of things, including an important amendment to the CWA Constitution.

We really played a role, I think, about fighting for everything, all kinds of things, including women’s rights and against the lack of women staff. The treatment of the women staff was an issue that we took up. We really did have a role nationally. In the past, when I first became a president, most of the women presidents were from operator services Locals and I think my example and my mentorship of some of them really changed that. And more and more Locals that were mixed Locals started having women leadership.

When I first entered the Ad-Hoc, this group of presidents from around the country, there were maybe three other women and most of them were from operator services Locals. I think by the time I left being a Local president and I became the co-chair of the Ad-Hoc, there were probably fifteen Local presidents in that group. That changed a lot.

MJC: Were the women able to have an impact on any issues?

LU: I think certainly in terms of bargaining. You know, it’s a union shop. People within a title were paid the same, but would get paid different wages for different titles. One of the big issues was a creation of a second-tier title among clerical workers. So, there were these traditional clerical titles that were fairly decently paid. And then the National Vice President at the time – who I didn’t like very much – negotiated a second tier of titles that did fairly similar work, but for a much lower pay.

It became one of those principles of our bargaining teams that even if the overall wage increase would have to be cut down a little bit, we would do something to increase those lower wages. That meant not just having percentage wages, because if there’s always percentage increases, then the guys always continue to rise further and clerical workers get less wages.

We came up with adding lump sum payments to them or adding particular dollar amounts to the lower titles to try to get them a little bit extra. I think because of who was on the bargaining team, we paid a lot more attention to those kind of issues. We tried unsuccessfully to change the way we paid for medical in the last few years, when we’ve had to start paying medical, so that the lower pay titles pay proportionately less. We weren’t successful, but we were very conscious of that as an issue that had to be fought.

MJC: What about pregnancy discrimination?

LU: By the time I started, that issue had somewhat been resolved. There was a lawsuit, so that issue had really been resolved. There was a lot of bitterness about it, because some parts of the company in the case it affected and other parts it didn’t. There were some women who never got their seniority back and there was some discussion and bitterness about it. But, going forward, it wasn’t a problem.

MJC: So, lots accomplished over that period of time.

LU: Yes, I loved it. It was fun, I think, much as it was, although there were layoffs – a huge number of layoffs. My Local went from 2,400 to 350. By the time I took the job as a CWA staff, my Local was down to 350. I was spending four and a half days a week on the job. I really felt like I was being wasted.

MJC: So, you experienced really, the decimation of AT&T.

LU: Yes, but I was happier at my Local than I was on staff. There are constraints, you know, when you work for an organization. You have to edit yourself in a way that I never had to do as President as long as my members were happy with me.

MJC: Right. But you were on staff.

LU: I was on staff. I had to censor myself a lot and I did not like that.

MJC: You served as the local president and then you went to CWA?

LU: 19 years. It was an interesting relationship, because I had run for Vice President. I had run against a previous vice president. His successor and I developed a relationship through a lot of hard work. And he eventually hired me as staff. The other people in the office held grudges against me, but he didn’t. He brought me on as staff and I eventually became the assistant to the next Vice President.

MJC: You completed your career with CWA at the staff level in Washington.

LU: I completed my career as assistant to the vice president of Communications Technologies, which is our division. When I ran for vice president in 1999, it was 60,000 votes. When I left, the office serviced only about 3500 people.

MJC: That was both the breakup of AT&T and then just the technology revolution taking away the jobs, am I right?   

LU:  The outsourcing of huge amounts of work overseas. It was a combination of technology, outsourcing, just general efficiencies. Once the companies re-merged, functions got taken away from us, basically because we were the old landline section of AT&T. Any work that was redundant was moved into the local companies, which were stronger.

It was terribly sad to see what happened. And the jobs that are left, it’s fortunate that at least in AT&T, that there’s a union in AT&T wireless. Verizon is non-union. So, a lot of the work is not union. We didn’t have competition before.

MJC: Do you have any thoughts on whether that story could have ended differently if something different had been done?  

LU: I said at the time when I was fighting internally in the company and the Union that I did not think the fight was waged well. Looking back, can I say for sure that there would have been anything different if we had fought these battles differently? Who can say? At the time I really felt that there were compromises we made that we should not have made; that there were fights that we should have fought, that we didn’t fight; that there were accommodations made to the leadership of AT&T and these companies that should not have been made. Who knows if the results would have been different? I just know I was angry all the time – that I didn’t think we were fighting hard enough. I made that point abundantly clear to my fellow unionists.

MJC: In addition to the issues of CWA and the work place issues as well as some of the women’s issues, were there other issues that you worked on, social justice issues as an adult along with your CWA work? 

LU:  CWA was really full time. Of course, I was part of demonstrations against the war in Iraq, women’s marches. I was absolutely for reproductive rights. My daughter went to her first giant demonstration for choice. I remember we came down to Washington when she was twelve and brought her friends with her. That was always an issue that was near and dear to us.

And in fact, the doctor who delivered my daughter was pro-choice before and doing abortions before they were legal. He was somebody I really greatly admired. So that was always an issue that I was active in. And antiwar. My husband was always very involved in health care issues. My husband is a full-time activist. My children grew up to be activists and labor activists. This was our life. This was dinner table conversation, breakfast conversation.

MJC: Is there anything that we’ve forgotten to talk about or that you’d like to talk about?

LU: I’m so glad I took the route that I did. There are a lot of young people now, particularly in the labor movement itself – including my son – who went to college, started in labor relations and then joined unions as staff. A lot of unions now are run by people who’ve never actually worked the job itself, but came on as staff.

I just think that it’s not for everybody. I think the route I took of getting the job, learning to be good at the job – because it’s important. If you’re not good at the job, then you can’t gain the respect of your fellow workers. I worked my way up through the organization.

It gave me so much more freedom to say what I wanted to say and do what I wanted to do and not have to worry about getting fired because some leader didn’t like what I said. I’m not saying that’s for everyone, but I think that having that hands-on experience just made my life so much richer and made my contributions to the union much better. There’s very little I would say that I regret.