The telephone workers' strike is a great deal more than a conventional shoving match over wages. The negotiations are going forward under the shadow of AT&T's divestiture of its local operating companies next January. By far the largest corporate reorganization ever undertaken, it has generated waves of anxiety and uncertainty that do more to explain the strike than the usual money issues can.

The unions are representing people who, this year, are a good deal less interested in cost-of-living adjustments than in the basic questions of job security. Some employees want firm commitments regarding the circumstances under which they might be shifted to other kinds of work. Some want commitments that they will have a chance at retraining rather than facing layoffs in favor of more highly skilled newcomers. All of them have been working for a huge and rather paternalistic monopoly. At the turn of the year, they will be split up among eight separate companies, probably less paternalistic, certainly more competitive. The employees want to know what kinds of jobs they will be holding, and those questions are hard to answer.

Not all of the anxiety is on the unions' side of the table. The relationship between AT&T's top management and the future local operating companies grows more ambiguous as January gets closer. Formally, the local companies are still subsidiaries of AT&T. In fact, everyone is sharply aware that the interests of AT&T and the local companies are by no means identical, and there are substantial differences among some of the local companies. The management negotiating team is headed by AT&T's chief labor specialist, but it includes the future personnel managers of the seven local companies. You also need to know that any contract signed this summer by AT&T is binding on all the new companies when they become independent next year.

The unions and their members have every reason to press for the tightest and most specific definitions of the rules governing assignments, reassignments and security. But for exactly the same reason management --or, more accurately, the eight managements--is desperately eager to avoid promises that would restrict its flexibility in meeting circumstances that, it is aware, it cannot fully foresee.

The phone strike has a lot in common with the congressional attempt to push through phone-rate legislation before the end of the year. The strike is the employees' reaction to the unanswered--and perhaps unanswerable--questions. The legislation is the politicians' reaction. The phone company's customers, who include just about everyone in the country, are only now beginning to realize the magnitude of the changes ahead. It's impossible to give the phone workers as much reassurance as they are asking. But they are entitled to a lot of sympathy as their company, throughout this century one of the most stable and predictable of employers, now slides rapidly toward divestiture.