In an eerie electronic way, it may be a strike of the future. Nearly 700,000 workers have walked off their jobs in the nation's basic communications network, but their absence is scarcely apparent to the people who place 500 million phone calls daily in the United States.
The telephone union says much more than its members' welfare is at stake. This is in part a strike about the displacement of workers by machines.
"We view this as a cutting-edge strike," said Roseanne Weisman, a spokesman for the Communications Workers of America, largest of three unions striking the Bell System. The telephone workers are going through what millions of others will in the future "as . . . skills become obsolete," she continued. "We are just seeing it before everybody else."
"We quarrel with the notion that only the union is concerned about this issue and the company is not," said Charles Dynes, a phone company spokesman, adding that the company has been in the forefront in helping retrain and otherwise reequip workers to deal with the disruptions of new technology.
"But technology is coming along at a lot faster pace now," he went on. "And this is complicated by the competition that's been introduced into the industry by a court-ordered divestiture . This is a very big factor."
One of the main sticking points in the Bell dispute, parties on both sides agree, is the issue of how workers should be treated as their skills lose relevance.
Since the strike began at 12:01 a.m last Sunday, the company has reported only minor disruptions of service. Some 97 percent of the phone calls go through without human aid, but there are delays in operator assistance, installation and repairs. Scattered incidents of violence and vandalism have been attributed to the strike. Some businesses, such as computer services, have been unable to get new equipment hooked up.
The union says its services will become more critical and pressure on the company will increase if the strike drags on, as the delicate automated equipment needs more repair and the supervisors filling in for strikers become exhausted.
This dispute could also be another kind of bellwether, coming as it does after a period when a number of unions in faltering industries have been forced by the recession and other economic forces to give back some of the gains they won in the past, producing some of the smallest wage increases in recent memory and a corresponding leveling of wage inflation. What the Bell workers achieve in this year's largest labor negotiation may be viewed as an indicator of how much wages will start spiraling up again.
The phone company, in contrast to steel, autos and other industries which have won union concessions, is healthy and the workers argue that they deserve more of its booming profits, which amounted to $7.2 billion last year.
The union rejected the Bell System offer of a maximum first-year increase of 3.5 percent for senior workers and none for new hires. Subsequent years would have provided cost-of-living increases only. Under the current contract signed in 1980, the rise in total compensation was estimated at about 35 percent over three years.
The company also wanted what the union called "givebacks" in health care payments and other areas.
Because of divestiture and its loss of monopoly status, the phone company is particularly intent on holding the line on labor costs and maintaining flexibility in how it deploys workers, officials say. At the end of the year, old Ma Bell will break into eight parts. Its 22 local operating companies, such as C&P Telephone, will spin off into seven independent companies. AT&T will keep Bell Labs, Western Electric (equipment manufacturing), Long Lines and its new marketing subsidiary.
The new element of competition, Dynes said, has to be considered. "In the area of equipment sales, for instance, we'll be competing with department stores and telephone boutiques. I suspect very few of those stores give employes a 30 percent benefits package. And their wages are likely closer to minimum wage than they are to $500 a week."
The top wage for a CWA phone company technician is $565.50 a week, and for a telephone operator, $389.
CWA President Glenn Watts has said it will take at least double the money offered to bring the workers back. This is in addition to his chief goal of protecting workers against the upheavals of divestiture and technology by means of a company-financed package providing training and retraining programs run jointly by management and the union.
Still, the same technology that makes employment security an issue in the bargaining is also robbing the phone company workers, as it has those in other industries such as newspapers and air traffic control, of leverage in their walkout.
Late this week, Watts said, "It is my growing impression that management is determined to wait this one out."
There has been some talk of intervention by federal mediators, but the company rejected the idea as unnecessary and one CWA source indicated that the union would be leery of anyone appointed by President Reagan, on grounds he would be "lacking in sympathy and understanding for the workers."
The phone company has been coping with new technology since the 1920s, when it switched from manual to dial phones. But so far, according to CWA researcher Ronnie Straw, its demand for labor nevertheless has increased about 1 percent per year.
Since 1960, the percentage of telephone operators has plummeted from 30.8 percent to 13.1 percent of Bell System workers, according to union figures. At the same time, the percentages of professional, scientific, office, installation and maintenance workers have risen.
In 1960, there were nearly five rank-and-file workers to every manager or supervisor, according to company figures. In 1980, that ratio had changed to just over two workers for every manager, further explaining why the company is able to do as well as it does without the missing 675,000.