AT&T workers take a big step by walking out

Joe Richard reports on last weekend's three-day strike of workers at AT&T Mobility, who sent a powerful message about solidarity to the corporation--and themselves.

AT&T workers on the picket line in San Francisco (Luke Pickrell)AT&T workers on the picket line in San Francisco (Luke Pickrell)

SOME 40,000 Communications Workers of America (CWA) members returned to work on May 22 at AT&T after a three-day strike that produced solid and spirited picket lines across the country.

From Boston to San Diego and dozens of states in between, workers at AT&T Mobility hit the bricks outside of retail stores and call centers with picket signs and noisy air horns, crippling and in many cases entirely shutting down AT&T operations.

Battling management over job outsourcing, wage increases, health care costs and multiple downward revisions of their commission policy, rank and file AT&T workers showed the single largest telecommunications company in the U.S. the power that people can muster when they walk off the job and shut down production.

"I decided to go on strike not only for myself, my family and my co-workers but for all working Americans who are sick and tired of being taken advantage of by greedy corporations," said Ashley Hill, an AT&T worker in Athens, Ohio. "I couldn't afford not to go on strike with my job security at stake and my health care cost being increased by 30 percent."

The 700,000 member-strong CWA was provoked into a strike after talks broke down between the union and AT&T Mobility management over the "Orange Book" contract, governing Mobility workers in 36 different states.

Mobility workers were joined by 17,000 wireline workers in California, Nevada and Connecticut, and 2,000 DirecTV technicians elsewhere—they are also represented by the CWA and bargaining simultaneously over their own contract.

Despite having settled other contracts covering AT&T workers in different regions across the country, management refused to move very far at the bargaining table--so on Friday of last week, workers walked off the job and stayed away through the weekend.

Arnulfo Sosa, an AT&T call center worker in Bothel, Washington, explained his reasons for striking:

We used to have around 400 workers at the Bothel Call Center. Now we're down to about 150. They sent jobs abroad because it's more cost-efficient for the company. Two of the key issues are health care and keeping jobs in the U.S...

I can't afford to live close to where I work. I have to commute 3 hours every day. I want to live closer to the call center, but I can't afford to live in the community. One of my co-workers was denied an apartment close by. The landlord said that he didn't make enough to afford the apartment.

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THE CWA seems to have chosen the three-day strike as a test of the union's strength among the many widely dispersed retail shops.

For most of the Mobility employees, this was their very first strike, and for some, their very first protest of any kind: a number of strikers were still fearful of management hostility and simply stayed away from their worksite through the weekend.

But reports of scabs were rare across the country. There were high participation rates in the strike and a smaller but very significant number of CWA members who actively set up picket lines.

Strikes can be very effective organizers of the working class by throwing workers into conflict and creating situations where working people draw larger lessons about their own power and their position within the broader social system.

Given the small size of most retail stores--less than a dozen workers are typically employed at each location--workers often develop close relationships or friendships with the people they worked with, including store managers. But this weekend, all the strikers watched as store managers crossed their picket lines and attempted to operate Mobility locations without them.

In some places, strikers reported managers ordering them to anticipate the flow of customer traffic during the strike and do extra work to prepare for their own absence. In others, store managers circulated threats and misinformation about workers being disciplined for going on strike, leaving no doubts as to which side they're on.

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SINCE MANY of the workers lacked strike experience, it's not surprising that some were unsure of what to do in order to shut down their stores. In many locations, softer picket lines didn't attempt to dissuade customers from entering or strikers hung around their shop without chanting or forming moving pickets.

On other picket lines, however, the situation was very different. On Saturday, hundreds of delegates to the Massachusetts Teachers Association joined picket lines in Boston on their way to a rally for education justice.

On Friday afternoon in New York City, dozens of members of the New York State Nurses Association joined picket lines in midtown Manhattan after leaving a conference. Community supporters and members of other unions displayed their solidarity by delivering bottled water, snacks and people to reinforce local picket lines all through the weekend.

Vivian Alexander, a striking AT&T worker in Athens, Ohio, was impressed with the scale of solidarity and community support she and her co-workers received. "I learned that a remarkable number of people in the community are willing to support our cause," Alexander said, "either by refusing to cross picket lines or by participating in them. I was very moved and inspired to see that people care."

Due to the relatively small size of the average retail location, a dozen or so confident picketers could successfully shut down an entire shop if they maintained energetic picket lines and engaged with customers.

Where strikers and their supporters tried to completely cut off business, they were oftentimes successful, forcing the managers inside to sit around with no work to do, or to simply shut down and lock up entire locations for lack of business.

In New York City, the presence of seasoned strike veterans from Verizon, where the CWA who won a 45-day strike last year, were critical to the success of the strike, lending the picket lines an energetic and confident character all across the city.

Verizon veterans taught their less experienced sisters and brothers how to set up moving pickets, engage with customers and negotiate with the police when managers called to complain. And they passed along some of their most popular chants and slogans.

In Queens, CWA veterans organized a joint picket with the AT&T strikers, Verizon workers of CWA Local 1106 and IBEW Local 3 members on strike at Spectrum/Time Warner Cable, demonstrating the power of solidarity between workplaces and unions.

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GIVEN THE wide geographic spread of the Mobility workforce across 36 different states, there were challenges facing the union in how to marshal forces in so many tiny workplaces. The CWA made good use of social media to spread news and show strong picket support all across the country through its Unity at AT&T Mobility Facebook page.

And a strong contract campaign brought strike preparations into many workplaces in the months leading up to the walkout itself, evidenced by the overwhelming strike authorization vote of some 93 percent.

But given the wide spread of workplaces and the small number of workers in each shop, much use could have been made of a daily strike bulletin put out by the national union, giving instructions on how to organize picket lines and dissuade customers, reporting numbers of struck locations and participation rates, and passing along information from pickets around the country.

Similarly, launching the strike with Friday afternoon mass rallies in the areas with major concentrations of retail stores and call centers could have given an early boost to workers' confidence, demonstrating their strength of numbers.

Ultimately, however, the strike appears to have been quite successful.

The union and management returned to the bargaining table on Monday. Given the regional settlements between AT&T and the CWA already this year, it's possible that a tentative agreement will be reached. Then it will be up to CWA members at Mobility to approve or vote down the tentative deal. If no agreement is reached, however, a subsequent strike is possible.

For this reason, it will be important for the union to consolidate the organizational gains it made through the strike by recruiting a new layer of members to become activists, shop contacts and stewards.

"I think we all need to be united," said Cecilia Trapino, a striking member of CWA Local 4603 in Madison, Wisconsin, as she walked the picket line. "We all need to be on the same page. If we're all as one, they can see that we all want the same thing and then one voice can be heard."

Newly energized workers could use the momentum to tip the balance of power in their workplaces towards the union by meeting regularly to discuss workplace concerns, organizing strike and picket line trainings and materials, or pursuing specific workplace grievances.

And it's imperative to fight back against any retaliatory action taken by managers: Already, some locations are trying to go after strikers by giving them "absence points" for the days on strike--a clear violation of federal labor law.

Ashlee Hill, an AT&T worker in Athens, Ohio, summed up the experiences that many workers have taken from the strike: "I learned about people's families, kids, hopes, fears, what they wanted to accomplish by going on strike, their reasons for going on strike--and, most importantly, solidarity. I learned that none of us truly win until we all win."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been corrected in several places. While the CWA has Unfair Labor Practice charges pending with the National Labor Relations Board, the three-day walkout was not formally a ULP strike. 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. Finally, 17,000 wireline workers in California, Connecticut and Nevada struck alongside Mobility workers, along with 2,000 DirectTV workers who work in various states.