AT&T Mobility Store Demolished as Workers Try to Huddle in Bathroom
Two CWA members were killed in the May 22 tornado that tore Joplin, Mo., in half, leaving nothing but a broad swath of rubble where homes, businesses, big box retailers, a high school and seven-story hospital had stood just minutes earlier.
Sharyl Nelsen, 34, of Local 6312 was killed as the tornado slammed into the AT&T Mobility store where she, four other CWA-represented coworkers and a family of six desperate for shelter were crammed inside a small bathroom. (See story below.)
Regina "Gina" Bloxham, 55, a Local 6313 member who had worked at AT&T Mobility's Joplin call center since it opened in 2007, was killed when the tornado destroyed her house. Her mother was critically injured and remains hospitalized.
Nelsen's four coworkers, at the store when the tornado struck, were badly bruised, battered and shaken, but are recovering, said Local 6312 President Jim Billedo. He is working with AT&T to ensure that his members get all the medical care, counseling and other help they need. For now, AT&T is paying their salaries, but it's not clear how long that will continue.
Billedo's local is based in Springfield; Local 6313 represents a call center and AT&T technicians in Joplin. Of about 550 members, more than 40 lost their homes and 20 of them, mostly renters, have no insurance. "They're wiped out, they've lost everything," Local President Kevin Kollmeyer said.
An outpouring of goodwill is helping meet the community's immediate needs, but the CWA officers are concerned about what will happen when news coverage subsides. Kollmeyer's local is accepting donations to a relief fund for members in need. But, working with CWA District 6 and headquarters, he's also created an "Adopt a Family" program.
The idea is for locals around the country to work directly with a CWA family that's lost everything, and help them get back on their feet. "This way, two months down the road, when the need is still there but no one is talking about Joplin anymore, our members will still have their CWA brothers and sisters helping them," Kollmeyer said.
To participate or ask questions, call Kollmeyer at (417) 623-2541 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations may be mailed to: CWA Local 6313 Disaster Relief Fund, P.O. Box 4053, Joplin, Mo., 64803.
Still in Shock
The Joplin, Mo., AT&T Mobility store after the May 22 tornado. Five CWA Local 6312 members were inside; CWA member Sharyl Nelsen was killed.
Joplin-area CWA members remain stunned by the extent of death and devastation. The death toll stands at 134 and more than 1,150 are badly injured. The AT&T Mobility store was among 300 businesses and 8,000 structures demolished. Hundreds of cars flew into the air and landed blocks away looking like they’d been through a wrecking-yard crusher.
The devastation is so vast that Kollmeyer said there's a limit to what AT&T technicians can do. "They're trying to restore services to all the businesses and customers that they can, but Joplin was sliced in half," he said. "From 15th Street to 26th, for about three-quarters of a mile wide, it's just leveled. There's nothing to replace, no homes to give service back to."
Kollmeyer's mother lost her home; remarkably the only room still standing when the wind stopped was the home's bathroom where his stepfather had run to safety.
The duplex where Local 6313 member Katie Thrasher lived with her two small dogs was also destroyed. Thrasher worked at the AT&T Mobility store until 5 p.m., stopped at home, then went out to a restaurant the tornado spared.
The tornado demolished Katie Thrasher's duplex. Her two dogs were home and survived, despite being stuck under rubble.
Below: Tornado survivors Katie Thrasher and Logan Pickett, both Local 6312 members who worked at the now-destroyed AT&T Mobility store in Joplin.
She called her neighbor and heard the shocking news, "Everything is gone." Just a few minutes earlier she hadn't been particularly alarmed by the tornado warnings. "They cry wolf all the time," she said, "and it either misses us or hits one little area."
"I got in my car and flew down to my house, seeing dead bodies lying all over the road, two bodies in front of my house," Thrasher said. "I've had a little bit of medical experience, so I went down the street and tried to help people. One guy had a stick coming out of his head. Another man was bleeding from the head."
She quickly found one of her dogs under the rubble and a neighbor found the other two days later. Both are OK. She is managing, too, and is grateful for her renter's insurance.
Remembering the Victims
Thrasher and Sharyl Nelsen had been close friends for years, long before Nelsen came to work with her at the AT&T Mobility store in 2010.
"They say that good people go first, and that's so true," Thrasher said. "She was the best person you would ever meet. Her arms were open to anyone and everybody. She didn't judge people, didn't have anything bad to say about people. I'll always remember her laugh, she was just hilarious."
In the moments before the tornado destroyed the store, Nelsen was on her cell phone with her family: her husband, Chad, daughter, Maddie, 14, and her son, Aaron, 10.
"She was just a great person, so nice to talk to," said Billedo, her local president. "She spoke Spanish and English and was very confident in her job. She was very well liked."
Coworker Logan Pickett, who went through training with Nelsen, said she was "one of my best friends at work" and recalled how they shared a love of all sorts of music.
Gina Bloxham, mother of three and grandmother of two, was a business customer service specialist for AT&T. As the tornado sped toward her home, she was inside a bedroom closet with her 88-year-old mother and on the phone with her daughter, Jennifer Bybee.
"She said, 'I have to get the cat' and I told her to forget the cat, but she got the cat anyway and got back in the closet. It was starting to get really loud. I told her I loved her, and said I'll call her back in just a few minutes," Bybee said.
Bybee and her husband live about 60 miles away and were getting ready to move her mother nearby so that she could be closer to her two small granddaughters, whom she always told "I love to infinity and beyond."
Minutes after the tornado, Bybee heard TV newscasters describing buildings that were near her mother's home. Unable to reach her, Bybee and her husband rushed to Joplin. At first, she wasn't even sure she was in the right neighborhood.
"It was just mass destruction, the best description I've heard is Ground Zero," Bybee said. "My sister was screaming on the phone that she couldn't find my mom and my granny."
Her mother had died instantly after being struck in the head. Her grandmother suffered multiple injuries and is on a ventilator.
Bloxham "was always full of laughter, so much fun, she was just that ultimate heart of hospitality and loved everyone unconditionally," her daughter said.
Bloxham's boss, Shane Laubach, described her similarly, calling her "an outstanding person who always had her customers laughing, always had a smile on her face."
Tornadoes have also recently struck Alabama and Tennessee. If you need assistance, CWA wants to help. Please contact your CWA local.
As the dark sky rotated and the fierce wind got even worse, five CWA members and a family of six they helped save ran to the back of the Joplin, Mo., AT&T Mobility store and squeezed inside the pitch-dark bathroom.
Minutes earlier, at 5:30 p.m. on a Sunday, the five employees had closed for the day. The city's tornado sirens were screeching, but they'd heard that many times before. The typical storm hit miles away, at worst blowing a roof off a building or two. The workers' main concern was that the power had gone off and they couldn't set the store's alarm system.
But in a matter of moments, they knew it was different this time. Outside their stand-alone building, a large pickup pulled into the parking lot with two adults and four children trying to find a safe place to wait for the funnel cloud to pass. The employees, members of Local 6312, let them in and told them to run to the back.
Over the howl of the wind the workers yelled at each other to get inside the bathroom. "Just in the nick of time," Logan Pickett remembers, they pulled the door closed behind them.
"The second that the door closed, all I remember is that you could just feel it, feel everything trembling, the walls were shaking, tiles were getting lifted up and down," says Pickett, 22.
His friend and coworker Sean Meador had his back against the door. "As soon as we got in the bathroom, the store windows busted out and the fire escape door flew open and I think the last thing any of us remember is a really, really big boom. The bathroom door came off, slammed me in the back and sent me flying into a brick wall."
Meador, 27, says he's pretty sure everyone blacked out. "The pressure was so intense," he said. "It was like the sound of a train and you feel like your eyeballs are going to pop out. You can't breathe.”
The next thing he knew, he was lying in rubble next to two members of the family, with a beam across his chest and theirs. An industrial-size air conditioning unit from the roof was atop his feet. "I wiggled and tried to scoot my feet out of my shoes," he says. "There was debris everywhere. I started hollering to people. Dave, Sharyl, Kelly and Logan were probably 20 to 30 feet from where I was. We got moved all over the building."
Like Meador and Pickett, Local 6312 members Dave Campbell and Kelly Newlan-Mishler were badly bruised and battered, but survived. Sharyl Nelsen did not. As they called out for each other and the family they soon realized that Sharyl was the only one not answering.
Meador and Newlan-Mishler were the first two able to dig themselves out, and they headed for help, both bleeding from cuts to their heads, among other injuries. "Kelly and I were both in shock," Meador says. "It was hailing out. I looked every which way. Everything was gone. Cars were upside down in the street.
Pickett had been holding onto a pipe under the bathroom sink, as well as having his arms around "Big Dave" and Sharyl. "When the tornado took the building, it moved all the piping and I went flying with the pipe," he says. "I could feel my body lift off the ground and then the pipe pulled me."
He doesn't know what he was thinking or feeling at that moment, but remembers that before, as they ran for the bathroom, he was scared. He had called his mother and told her he loved her. "I knew something wasn't right, but I didn't know how bad it was," he says.
When he first woke up in the rubble, "I could hear stuff still hitting, the winds blowing and swirling," he says. "You could feel it physically. It wasn't painful, but you could feel the vibrations. I must have went black again because I remember waking up and everyone was yelling and screaming and crying and praying."
For more than an hour, maybe two, he and everyone but Sean and Kelly remained trapped. When they were rescued, there was no hospital for them to go to. The tornado had demolished it, too.
They saw doctors in the following days, but are still healing and very sore. Pickett says he's had a constant headache and Meador says he's in pain when he moves, can't stand for long, can't even lie on his back. In addition to their medical care, Local 6312 President Jim Billedo is working with CWA and AT&T to guarantee that his members get whatever counseling they need.
Meador says he's been emotional and edgy as he tries to process his near-death experience and the death of a coworker and friend. "Every time I close my eyes I still replay it," he says.
Decision Follows AFA-CWA Complaints of Widespread Interference
Based on AFA-CWA complaints of widespread interference by Delta Air Lines during the 2010 representation election for 20,000 Flight Attendants, the National Mediation Board has ordered an on-site investigation into Delta's conduct.
The workers came within 328 votes of winning AFA-CWA representation last November, but lost because of management interference, the union charged. "Delta Flight Attendants will finally have their day in court," AFA President Veda Shook said. "Management's misconduct was blatant and persistent."
During the voting period, supervisors contacted Flight Attendants at their homes, and management encouraged Flight Attendants to vote on company computers where they could be monitored. Flight Attendants supporting AFA were denied the ability to talk with other pro-union Flight Attendants, even in the lobbies of layover hotels.
AFA is also supporting the 7,000 pre-merger Northwest Flight Attendants at Delta who are suing the airline for discrimination because they were union members.
Shook said AFA will cooperate fully with the NMB investigation, and urged Delta to end its delaying tactics in the merger integration process for the former Northwest Flight Attendants.
Activist Jesse Jackson Helps Put Spotlight on Workers’ Solidarity Tour
District 1 Vice President Chris Shelton said attacks on workers' rights had created a "firestorm among state and public workers."
Below: In Trenton, Jesse Jackson told workers not to let the attacks on their rights break their spirit. "You have the votes," he said. With Jackson, at left, is District 1 Legislative/Political Director Robert Master.
For two days throughout New Jersey this week, thousands of CWAers rallied against brutal and unfair health care cuts, and to preserve their right to bargain over health care, pensions and other benefits.
Billed as the "Solidarity Tour for Bargaining Rights and Budget Fairness," the rallies took place as tough negotiations covering 40,000 CWA state workers continue with the state and its anti-union governor, Chris Christie.
Kicking off the tour Tuesday at the Camden City Hall, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson urged state workers to stand firm against the "toxic wind" that is blowing across America trying to eradicate collective bargaining rights.
"Workers are being dumped on as if you are the reason we're in an economic crisis," he said. "State workers must hold ranks and fight back. You have the votes. You must not let this governor break your spirit."
David Bittner, a member of CWA Local 1033 with the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission told a NJ.com reporter that he had never experienced so much pressure as a state worker. "We're hard workers and we just want to try to save what we have," he said. "They want to strip away everything. They are touching our pensions, our medication, they just chip away at everything.”
In Trenton, more than 700 CWAers, members of the New Jersey Education Association and other state workers gathered at the city war memorial, for a rally Wednesday. Speakers included CWA District 1 Vice President Chris Shelton, who said the attacks are "creating a firestorm among state and public workers that is fueled by the hopes and dreams of the middle class and working people."
Jackson accused Christie of hypocrisy for blaming the state's budget deficit on workers while he cuts taxes for the rich and was even caught this week using a state police helicopter to take him to his son's baseball game. "Here you cannot get public transportation to work and you send somebody out to the ball game in a helicopter?" Jackson asked.
Around the state, more than 1,000 state workers rallied in Newark, and hundreds of others also demonstrated in Jersey City, as well as in neighboring Philadelphia to support 150 striking Red Cross workers who are members of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees-AFT.
CWA joined with a large coalition of workers and allied organizations for the Solidarity Tour, including the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, New Jersey Citizen Action, the NAACP, the New Jersey AFL-CIO, the New Jersey Black Issues Convention, the Latino Action Network, SEIU 1199, RDWSU, and leading African-American members of the clergy.
View pictures and videos from the rallies here and here.
The legal and political battle continues in Wisconsin, even after a judge last week struck down the state's anti-collective bargaining law. Above, workers rally at the statehouse May 14.
Republican lawmakers broke Wisconsin's open meetings law when they rushed to pass a bill stripping public workers of their collective bargaining rights, a judge ruled last week.
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi's decision strikes down the law, for now, but is not the final verdict. The state Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday in the case, and Republicans could try to pass the law a second time.
Whether they could, or would want to do so, is unclear, given the July 12 recall elections for six senators who voted in favor of the anti-union bill and the outrage that brought thousands of protesters to the statehouse for weeks earlier this year.
Sumi said legislators didn't give the required 24-hour notice before their meeting to pass the bill. "The court must consider the potential damage to public trust and confidence in government if the Legislature is not held to the same rules of transparency that it has created for other governmental bodies," she wrote in a 33-page decision.
CWA District 4 Vice President Seth Rosen said the decision is encouraging but doesn't change the ongoing work for CWA, other unions and their allies who are fighting back against the attacks on workers' rights.
"While we are happy with the court ruling overturning this attack on collective bargaining, we will not get distracted from our critical efforts to change the majority in the state Senate in recall elections this summer," Rosen said. "Even if this decision stands, the Senate could vote the same way again, unless we can change the balance of power. Our local leaders and activists are working around the clock to ensure that we return to a pro-worker majority in the Senate this summer."
Friends and family of former TNG-CWA member Dorothy Parvaz used social networking to push for her freedom when she was imprisoned for 19 days in Syria and Iran.
For much of May, TNG-CWA members in Seattle and journalists around the world feared for the safety of reporter Dorothy Parvaz, who disappeared April 29 after flying to Syria to cover the latest Arab Spring uprising.
The former Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild and bargaining team member, now an Al Jazeera reporter, was grabbed in Damascus by Syrian secret police and dragged into a bloody cell as guards brutalized prisoners around her. Then it appeared to be her turn: They blindfolded her, took her into a courtyard and pushed her against a wall, execution-style.
"There's no way to prepare for that," Parvaz said, in an a lengthy interview with the online magazine, The Stranger. She knew that some captured journalists had endured mock executions but didn't know what was happening to her. "I was so completely overwhelmed by the noises I was hearing, by the sounds of the beatings that I didn't know what to think. My brain was in a frenzy."
It was an attempt to terrify her before subjecting her to interrogations about her travel and writings. After three days, the Syrians put her on a plane to Iran where she endured more interrogation and 16 days in a solitary cell, what she calls the "longest days of my life."
She didn't know it at the time, but her former Seattle Post-Intelligencer colleagues, her family, friends and other fellow journalists had created a "Free Dorothy Parvaz" Facebook page and were keeping her in name in the news. "It really helped my cause, the fact that so many people on the outside were getting my name out," she said. Her interrogator accessed the wealth of information and, it "reinforced, from multiple sources, who I was," she told The Stranger.
Parvaz is remembered with pride by colleagues in Seattle, where she was an active Guild member who served on the joint bargaining team when units at the P-I and the Seattle Times went on strike in late 2000.
Nineteen days after she was first detained, the Iranians sent Parvaz home to her family and fiancé in Vancouver, B.C. She said she was never physically harmed and was generally treated hospitably in Iran despite being held in a prison former inmates have described as a torture chamber.
She is deeply concerned about the hundreds of thousands of people detained without due process in such prisons worldwide, prisoners who don’t have Facebook pages and notoriety. And detaining journalists is one way some governments try to keep those stories from being told.
"Having a free press is one of the most vital things you can have in a country, and when you don’t have that, you downgrade your own culture, your own democracy and your own credibility," she said.
Click here to read the full interview with Parvaz or find it at www.thestranger.com.
Casey Schannauer on graduation day at the University of Minnesota.
CWA Vice President Ralph Maly thought this letter from a recipient of a CWA-Alcatel-Lucent scholarship was good reading for all of us:
Dear Mr. Maly and all communications workers represented by CWA:
First of all, thank you for sponsoring me with an Alcatel-Lucent CWA/IBEW scholarship over the past four years. This scholarship helped cover over 60 percent of my college tuition at the University of Minnesota-Carlson School of Management and was crucial to financing my continued education. I recently graduated on May 16 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Supply Chain/Operations Management. I chose this major in a hope to make a positive difference with the transportation of goods and services in a world where increasing energy prices are putting a bind on the current way of doing business.
Second, thank you to all workers represented by CWA. Without your continued resilience, there would be no scholarship program to benefit students whose parents work in the communications industry. It has been an honor to be represented by such a great organization. I'd also like to give a thank you to my stepfather, Scott Juusola of Minneapolis, Minn. He installs crucial infrastructure for Alcatel-Lucent's service parents and has kept me informed on what was going on at work for the past four years. Alcatel-Lucent ships him all over the country — from New Jersey to Texas — because they know he can get the job done right every time. I appreciate CWA for representing him through all his hard work and dedication. Workers like him deserve a lot!
College has been a great experience and I do not have a large amount of debt thanks to Alcatel-Lucent and CWA's sponsorship. I am currently obtaining full time employment and am excited to be entering business. In the future, I will be committed to upholding the status of unions to protect hardworking employees who are so important to our nation. Thank you again for the support over the past four years!