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Working In These Times

Friday, Aug 10, 2012, 2:26 pm

As Some AT&T Unions Strike, Others “Scab”

BY Mike Elk

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CWA members from across California rally outside of the State Capitol in Sacramento, protesting what they believe is unfair bargaining by AT&T.   (Photo by CWA Union via Flickr)

On Tuesday, 20,000 AT&T workers in California, Connecticut and Nevada went out on a two-day strike to protest unfair bargaining by AT&T.

The striking members of West Coast-based Communication Workers of America District 9 and Connecticut-based CWA Local 1298 claim that the company has given them a take-or-leave-it contract with concessions that they simply cannot take. Under AT&T's terms, "a new employee will pay 32 percent of their [health care] premium costs, plus a deductible of $1,000," says CWA Local 1298 President Bill Henderson. "A new employee making $18 an hour cannot afford that. He would be working to pay for his health care, and our feeling is that’s a bad contract.”

The locals are also upset that in May, AT&T began shifting work from business technicians--who make $30-$35 an hour--to apprentice technicians, who make $18-$22 an hour and are easier to fire.

What's surprising about the strikes is the lack of solidarity from other CWA districts. CWA members at AT&T call centers in District 4 in the Midwest voluntarily took overtime to compensate for the missed work of those on strike.

“Here we have a situation where the same union is scabbing on itself. It's sort of surreal,” says Kieran Knutson, a call center worker in Minneapolis and a member of CWA Local 725.

CWA represents over 150,000 AT&T workers across the country. However, instead of a single national contract, the union must negotiate about a dozen different ones. There are nine regional bargaining units based on the telephone companies that were unionized before merging into AT&T. On top of that, wireless AT&T workers have their own units.

When CWA negotiates these various contracts, they try to stick to a common expiration date to increase their bargaining clout and make a collective strike possible. In theory, no district will sign a new contract until all districts have agreed to a deal.

But during the last round of contract talks, three years ago, some CWA districts settled for concessionary contracts without getting the approval of other districts. This year, it appears that the same thing is happening. On July 20, while some AT&T workers in were gearing up for a strike, District 4--based in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan--cut a separate deal with AT&T.

“AT&T has a divide and conquer policy. They work one group against the other and that’s not a good thing for a national union,” says Henderson. “They offered us the same settlements that District 4 agreed to and we said no. Shame on District 4 and those other people who took such a lousy deal because they didn't have to. When they set the bar so low, it just doesn't hurt their members, it hurts all of the union.”

However, Jerry Schaeff, Administrative Director of CWA District 4, says that they were simply looking out for their own members when they took the deal. “The Midwest contract meet the needs of the Midwest workers,” says Schaeff. “We continue to support [the other CWA unions] any way we can. Our issues is employment security and we feel we got a good deal. Whoever gets done first usually gets beat up by others, but that’s just the way it is.”

“That’s a lie. District 4 didn't get any job security,” says CWA Local 1298 President Bill Henderson. “They got offered the things we already have in our contract because we fought harder in our contract last time. The biggest problem we have with District 4 is that we are on strike and they are signing up for overtime and they are directing calls to the Midwest. And they got nobody in their union telling them not to do it.”

In other CWA bargaining units that have already tentative agreements, there has been little attempt to coordinate solidarity activities with those still out struggling for contracts, says Minnesota-based Kieran Knutson, whose CWA Local 7520, covered by the "legacy t" contract has reached a tentative deal with AT&T. “Our district is at work while these guys are striking. I only found out about the strike from AT&T in an email about updates on negotiations,” says Knutson.

Another issue causing contention within the union is the federal lobbying support CWA has provided for AT&T's controversial planned merger with T-Mobile.

“Everyone at the union who worked on the T-Mobile deal should be ashamed of themselves. Now ATT is screwing them at the bargaining table. What the hell is going on?” says Henderson.

CWA President Larry Cohen and CWA Vice President for Technology and Communications Ralph Maly did not respond to request for comment on this story.

Some CWA members say that the missed opportunity for solidarity and leverage in AT&T negotiations has not only hurt AT&T workers, but also hurt CWA's negotiations with Verizon. After a three-week strike last August, Verizon employees have been working without a contract for a year.

“Verizon has mentioned at the table that CWA has agreed to premiums and certain concessions at AT&T,” says New England-based CWA Local 1400 President Don Trementozzi, a member of the bargaining team that has been locked in tense negotiations with Verizon for the last 14 months.

As a result of the Verizon deadlock, locals at both CWA and IBEW have taken strike authorization votes this week and have been begun to make strike assignments. The Federal Mediation Service has instructed Verizon to continue bargaining with IBEW-CWA until Wednesday, August 15. If the company seeks to impose the current terms, Trementozzi puts the odds of a strike by 45,000 Verizon workers in the Northeast at “60-40.”

“I think the company doesn't think we have the balls to strike,” says Trementozzi, “But I think we would rather try in the street other than taking those imposed conditions."

Henderson and other CWA reformers are optimistic that their militancy will inspire rank-and-file workers in other regions to fight against concessions. In Minnesota, Kieran Knuston is leading a “Vote No” campaign against his union's tentative agreement. “There are some significant concessions. My monthly medical cost is going to more than double over the life of the contract.”

“The only way to make gains is to have a credible threat of a strike. In order to have a successful strike, you have to unity among the working groups,” says Knutson. “I think it’s important that workers stand with folks that are out on strike and that we don't accept these tentative agreements.”

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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