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Morton Bahr, 93, Dies; Led Communications Workers Into Digital Age

Morton Bahr, a national labor leader who helped his fellow communication workers survive threats to their jobs posed by digital technology and corporate revamping, died on July 30 at his home in Washington. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by his son, Daniel.

From 1999 to 2001, Mr. Bahr was also the president of the Jewish Labor Committee, a national advocacy group, which said the cause of death was pancreatic cancer.

Mr. Bahr, who began his career as a telegraph operator, was president of the Communications Workers of America from 1985 to 2005, running a union that today represents about 700,000 public and private sector employees in technology, media, airlines and law enforcement.

He presided during the convulsive breakup of AT&T’s Bell System as a telephone service monopoly, as mandated by a 1982 consent decree. Bell had employed a half million union workers.

After the government filed suit for antitrust law violations, AT&T continued to provide long-distance service while giving up control of local telephone business to what would become independent regional Bell operating companies.

Mr. Bahr devised two strategies that enabled the union to successfully navigate the consolidation in the industry and the automation wrought by the introduction of cellphones and other digital devices. These advances had sharply reduced the need for installers, repairmen and other communication workers.

ImageCreditNeal Boenzi/The New York Times

By forming partnerships with educational institutions and negotiating with management, Mr. Bahr started job retraining programs. He also secured child care benefits and flexible schedules to give employees more latitude for work, study and family.

“A commitment to lifelong learning requires a change in lifestyle and values,” he said repeatedly. “Instead of going out for a beer with your co-workers at the end of the shift, you might have to go to the library. Education has to become a major part of your life.”

In 2001, the Morton Bahr Distance Learning Scholarship was established in his honor at SUNY Empire State College to help adult workers with full-time jobs pursue college studies.

He also expanded his base by recruiting members from beyond the volatile telecommunication industry, incorporating the Association of Flight Attendants, the International Typographical Union, the International Union of Electrical Workers, the Newspaper Guild and the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians.

“Morty understood that the C.W.A’.s power depended on economic leverage,” Prof. Harry Charles Katz, director of the Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution at Cornell University, said in an email, “and he cleverly found ways to counteract the loss in traditional sources of union power that occurred when telecommunications technology made switchboard operators obsolete, and when microelectronics altered the work of telecom network technicians.”

His successor as union president, Chris Shelton, said in a statement, “Morty was comfortable whether he was in the company of presidents of the United States, in the halls of Congress, or on a picket line.”

Morton Bahr was born on July 18, 1926, in Brooklyn to Morton and Elizabeth (Kleinick) Bahr, Jewish immigrants from Russia. He was raised in the Brownsville section. His father worked in the silk business.

ImageCreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

After graduating from Samuel J. Tilden High School (in his yearbook he said he aspired to be a teacher), he entered Brooklyn College when he was barely 16.

But his education was curtailed by World War II. (He would eventually receive a bachelor of science degree in 1983, from the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies of Empire State College.) Enlisting as a merchant seaman, he served as a radio operator. He was the last surviving member of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s executive council to have served in World War II, said Michael Sacco, president of the Seafarers International Union.

Mr. Bahr married his girlfriend, Florence Slobodow, during a shore leave in 1945. After returning to sea, he received a message in October 1946 that his wife had given birth to a son. In a memoir, “From the Telegraph to the Internet” (1998), he wrote that when he finally returned home, he told her that he wanted to make one more voyage. “Go ahead,” she replied, “but the baby and I won’t be here when you return.”

Instead, given his shipboard experience, she referred him to a newspaper advertisement for a job opening at Mackay Radio and Telegraph Company in New York, where he became a telegraph operator.

After a strike there in 1951 crippled the American Communications Association, a loose federation of unions, Mr. Bahr joined the newly constituted Communication Workers. He became an organizer at McKay, which became American Cable & Radio, and in 1954 was elected to lead Local 1172 in New York.

He later organized about 24,000 workers of New York Telephone (now Verizon). As vice president of the union’s regional New York-New Jersey district, he led a 218-day strike against New York Telephone in 1971. That walkout empowered the union in negotiations with AT&T three years later.

After he retired in 2005, Mr. Bahr was on the board of the National Housing Partnership Foundation.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife; his daughter, Janice Bahr; four grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.


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