AT&T workers prepare for a three-day strike

May 19, 2017

Joe Richard explains the issues at stake as 40,000 CWA members prepare for a strike.

SOME 40,000 AT&T workers are gearing up for a possible strike across 36 states as early as Friday, May 19.

On Tuesday, May 16, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) informed members that if an agreement hadn't been reached by Friday afternoon, they should set up picket lines and remain on strike through the weekend.

Some 21,000 CWA members who work for AT&T Mobility, the company's wireless division, voted by a 93 percent margin to authorize a strike. In addition, 17,000 wireline workers in California, Nevada and Connecticut and 2,000 DirecTV technicians are preparing for a strike as well.

If the walkout happens, it will be the first national strike since the start of the Trump administration.

At stake is a battle over the quality of union jobs at AT&T. The company has refused to move on any of a long list of union demands around pay, health care costs, performance incentives and outsourcing of jobs.

THE 700,000-member-strong CWA is looking to build off its victory last year over corporate behemoth Verizon after a long strike and to stop the loss of union-represented work at AT&T, as the company subcontracts its call center workforce to vendors across the global South.

AT&T workers on the picket line for a fair contract
AT&T workers on the picket line for a fair contract (Unity at AT&T Mobility | Facebook)

The majority of the 21,000 union members in AT&T's wireless operations work at small AT&T Mobility retail shops, employing about a dozen workers on average. Others are employed in call centers spread out across the country.

Managers across the country have been spreading misinformation and threatening workers with discipline if they participate in the strike, so strong community and labor support on the picket lines will be essential if a walkout occurs.

Union bargaining across AT&T Mobility is split up across different regions of the country, with different contracts covering different states. The current negotiations are over the "Orange Book" contract covering 36 states, with Black, Purple and Green being mostly settled and bargained at other times.

All told, the CWA represents more than 100,000 workers across the country at AT&T. That includes the 17,000 line and cable workers in California, Nevada and Connecticut and the 2,000 more DirecTV technicians who will also be walking picket lines over the weekend if they don't get a new contract.

AT&T Mobility is one of the single largest retail workforces with union representation anywhere in the U.S. Many members were unionized under "bargaining to organize" agreements with the company, which allowed for speedy representation elections.

The union is demanding wage increases greater than the paltry 2 percent per year hike offered by the company--this wouldn't even make up for increases in health care costs. CWA members also want a reversal of the company's recently changed bonus and incentive pay policy for commissions, which resulted in many employees losing thousands of dollars in take-home pay each year.

The company maintains a highly punitive sick leave and time-off policy, which can lead quickly to termination for employees unless their sickness is covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

And just like at Verizon, the CWA is pushing hard for the creation of more union-represented jobs, in an effort to reverse AT&T's trend toward subcontracting the stream of customer service and technical help calls to call-center vendors based largely in the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and El Salvador.

The union is also fighting the spread of "authorized retailers," which are run on a non-union franchise basis and maintain notoriously poor working conditions.

AT&T is the single largest telecom corporation in the U.S., listing $164 billon in sales and 135 million wireless customers. CEO Randall Stephenson got a raise of several million dollars last year, bringing his personal take-home pay up to $28.4 million in 2016. The company reported $13 billion in profits in the same year.

But AT&T is under pressure from Wall Street to cut costs after its recent acquisition of Time Warner Cable for a whopping $85 billion--it also took on huge amounts of that company's debt.

To keep raking in the profits, AT&T has ruthlessly pursued subcontracting of call center work. Highlighted in a new report produced by the CWA called "Offshoring Customer Service: How AT&T Lowers Standards for Workers and Consumers through its Global Race to the Bottom," the union claims the company has shed more than 12,000 in-house call center jobs since 2011.

The closings have devastated cities and towns across the U.S. where unionized call center jobs represent some of the best employment available in working-class communities--like in Ridgeland, Mississippi, where AT&T shut down a call center employing 110 people.

In an era when immigrant scapegoating has become even more widespread with the election of Donald Trump to the White House, the union's report is refreshing in highlighting the struggles of workers across AT&T's global footprint who are engaged in their own battles for union representation and a living wage.

Across other regions, the CWA has already succeeded in making the creation of unionized call-center jobs a key part of its bargaining strategy after the seven-week Verizon strike in 2016 achieved 1,700 guaranteed union jobs. The settlement earlier this spring with AT&T Southwest will bring back 3,000 unionized call-center jobs.

As potentially the first national strike of Trump administration, it remains to be seen how the White House would respond if a walkout occurs.

Given the current controversy surrounding the administration, it's possible that Trump will keep his distance. But under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, sitting U.S. presidents can unilaterally intervene in strikes or even potential strikes that they claim could create a "national emergency" and order workers to end their walkouts and return to work. Former President George W. Bush invoked Taft-Hartley against the West Coast longshore union in 2002.

Stay tuned for updates about the walkout at AT&T--and make plans to join a picket line if you hear that the CWA is hitting the streets on Friday afternoon.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been corrected in several places. Rather than being recently unionized as initially stated, the Mobility workers first gained access to union recognition in the 1990s as part of CWA's "Bargain to Organize" agreement with AT&T. Also, 17,000 wireline workers in California, Connecticut and Nevada struck alongside Mobility workers, along with 2,000 DirectTV workers who work in various states.

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