Aug 14, 2014
Joe Beirne was driven by fierce intelligence and a burning interest in organizing and educating workers.
Today, 40 years after his death on Labor Day in 1974, we remember his lasting contribution to building CWA.
Beirne went on the road to organize telephone workers.
"My trip around the country in a Greyhound bus was just financed from one stop to the next," he recalled. "I'd come from one stop and I had nothing left and we'd pass the hat. Whatever we got out of the hat would tell me what city I could go to next."
Beirne, who grew up in Jersey City, N.J., was the son of Irish immigrants – his dad was a union railroad worker. He started out in 1927 working for Western Electric, the Bell Telephone System's manufacturing arm. New Deal labor reforms and passage of the Wagner Act in 1935 inspired Beirne and others to organize the nation's phone workers. Beirne, 32 years old at the time, became president of National Federation of Telephone Workers in 1943, five years after the union was formed.
He set himself the mission of molding the loose federation of autonomous unions of communications workers into a true international union. That goal, forged in the fires of a tough nationwide strike by 350,000 Bell System workers in 1947, was achieved the following year with creation of the modern Communications Workers of America.
With a strong new national structure and affiliation with the militant CIO in 1949, CWA under Beirne's leadership broadened its organizing focus, grew steadily in numbers and strength, and used an innovative pattern bargaining strategy to raise wage and benefit standards throughout the communications industry. In 1965, at President Beirne's urging, the convention adopted the triple threat program, the precursor to the CWA triangle. Beirne believed that collective bargaining, politics and legislation and organizing were mutually dependent and equally vital to CWA's success. The union also became a leading force in the political and legislative arenas, community services, the civil rights struggle, and global labor affairs.
By the time Beirne stepped down from the presidency in June of 1974 because of illness, CWA had become one of the most dynamic and progressive unions in the world – qualities that also described its leader for more than three decades.
Joe Beirne died on Labor Day, 1974. The Joseph Anthony Beirne Foundation, established by CWA in October 1974, honors his lifelong commitment to education and progressive social causes.